As the Democratic primary got underway earlier this year, candidates were confronted with a question that hadn’t been asked in previous elections: Should people convicted of crimes have the right to vote while they’re in prison?
The idea, which may seem radical, already exists in some countries: Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and Ukraine. And some places in the US — Vermont, Maine, and Puerto Rico — allow felons in prison to vote as well.
As Vox’s German Lopez puts it in his explainer, the conversation boils down to a debate of principles: “Can someone at some point do something so terrible that he loses his right to vote?”
But the people who would benefit the most directly from the policy — prisoners themselves — were largely missing from the conversation.
I talked to three prisoners, all imprisoned for murders committed at least 25 years ago, to discuss their views on voting and democracy: Norman Brown, convicted of murder in 1993 and held at Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri; Benny Lopez, also convicted for murder in 1993 and held at Dixon Correctional Center in Illinois; and Brian Beals, convicted of murder in 1988, also held at Dixon Correctional Center. I first met Brown and Lopez through my work at the Medill Justice Project, and Lopez connected me with Beals.
As of now, the only way they would ever get to cast a ballot is through major reforms to the system.
While resources are limited, all three said federal prisoners are not totally shut off from the outside world. They read newspapers that are circulated around the prison, rely on word-of-mouth from other prisoners who have better access to news, and watch CNN and Fox.
Benny Lopez (Lopez and Beals were interviewed by phone in June while Brown was interviewed by email in May) described himself as largely apathetic about politics: “Why would we be so involved in who the candidates are, what do the candidates do, what are they promising? Because it doesn’t really affect us.” But Beals said he supports Elizabeth Warren for her ability to roll out solid policy ideas, although he also described himself as intrigued by Pete Buttigieg’s wit.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all three said they were in favor of the right to vote.
“No one side, Democrat or Republican, would have an unfair advantage swaying over the inmate population, same as in society,” said Brown, who also said he had access to national and local newspapers and cable news, said. “We get our information and we choose the side that fight or work for our core values.”
On the right to vote: “Deep down inside, you feel powerless”
All three prisoners made it clear that they believe the only way prisoners can capture politicians’ attention is if they become key constituents.
“As is stands now, policymakers have no reason or incentive to get smart on crime. Imprisoned felons can’t vote so they can’t hold them accountable,” Brown said. “Local and national politicians and policymakers can continue to craft misguided laws that sink state budgets, drain taxpayers and do not work.”
Politicians cannot ignore the voting power of prisoners, especially in smaller local races, because they could add thousands more votes — a number that could make or break an election, Beals said. Enfranchisement will also naturally lead to more education because politicians want voters to be well informed about social issues and their policies, he added.
For Brown, the right to vote boils down to an issue of humanity: “You tell yourself every day, you are someone. This becomes your coping mechanism but deep down inside you feel powerless to change the hopelessness of being stripped and reduced to a number. You are in effect broken. Giving or restoring voting rights would be a step toward healing and restoring the humanity to human beings that have been broken.”
Lopez said that he understands why some people are against felon enfranchisement. As many opponents have pointed out, he acknowledged that prisoners gave up the right to vote when they committed a crime. These same people, however, can bring insight into issues that urgently need to be addressed, he said — issues that often plague low-income and minority groups the most.
“It would still be important to us because we’ve been through it,” he said. “We’ve been through the upbringing of the bad neighborhood and stuff like that that led a lot of us here.”
On who should vote: “Set it up in a way you have to earn it”
Although all three prisoners agreed that prisoners should have some voting rights, they disagreed about whether every prisoner should get to vote.
Beals said he does not think that all prisoners should have the right to vote. Only those who have reached a higher educational level and shown exceptional behavior should be allowed to cast their votes in the ballot, he said.
“I think you have to have a certain level of education to understand politics, the political process,” Beals said. “I don’t think it would be discriminatory not to have everybody, to just set it up in a way you have to earn it.”
Felon enfranchisement would also be more palatable to the public if they knew specific standards had to be met, he added.
Brown, however, said all prisoners should have the right to vote.
Not all will vote — “just as not all citizens in the free world do” — but the option should be provided to everyone nonetheless, he said.
“Giving them a right to vote is for the health of the country as a whole, not a gift or reward,” he said.
Lopez said that everyone should be given the right to vote because it is too difficult to distinguish the traits that make a prisoner worthy of voting. Discrimination among prisoners for voting purposes can lead to bias and prejudice, which can be particularly dangerous when so many prisoners have complex backgrounds, he said.
“I don’t know that man’s situation. I don’t know if he was guilty of what he’s been accused of,” he said. “So to say, ‘Oh, well don’t give them no rights,’ how do I sound?”
He did, however, acknowledge that those who have been incarcerated longer are more likely to be engaged with the voting system because they’ve had more education while spending time in the prison system. He added that those with family outside of the prison, like himself, would be more interested in voting in the hope of electing politicians that would support their loved ones.
Ultimately, Brown said the right to vote should be given to everyone — prisoner or free man, educated or uneducated, well-behaved or misbehaved.
“We have to separate our need for punishment and the well-being of a healthy country,” Brown said. “We have become so punishment driven it blinds us.”
Prisoners have a wide variety of interests: prison reform, education funding, rebuilding disadvantaged communities, etc.
Despite being isolated from society, there are many issues that prisoners want the government to address, especially issues that lead to a cycle of incarceration. Lopez, Beals, and Brown spoke from experience about how their upbringing significantly impacted their actions — drug-ridden communities, poor education funding in their neighborhoods, a failing justice system — and how these issues needed to be addressed immediately. Yet they also said politicians wouldn’t pay more attention to their needs until they became constituents.
All three prisoners agreed that the prison system needs extensive work, especially when it comes to funding education and improving living conditions for prisoners.
Lopez recalled his environment when he resided in Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Illinois. He said the facility was “nasty” because of the lack of ventilation, peeling paint, and abundance of mice and roaches.
“For the most part, when I was at Stateville, that place — it was condemned,” he said. “Some cells didn’t have electricity while others didn’t have plumbing. You’re lucky if you were to get electricity and plumbing together.”
He added that education funding is also an issue that is in dire need of attention. Lopez said that due to the lack of staff in his facilitiy’s college programs, only those who are close to being released can apply for classes — which is far from the near future for Lopez. Yet education is a crucial factor in any prisoner’s rehabilitation, he said.
Better education funding is an issue that needs to be addressed even outside the prison walls, Brown said.
“If we keep cutting education (underfunding, cutting salaries, closing schools and not fixing schools) what future are we leaving to innocent children who hasn’t committed any crimes?” he asked. “We are setting him/her on a path right into the prison door.”
Beals said because he comes from Englewood, Chicago, an area that had a poverty rate of 44 percent in 2000, he is most passionate about solving the problems within these disadvantaged communities. This includes measures such as building better schools regardless of the neighborhood’s income level and raising wages, he said.
“If I could add my vote to the process, I can possibly help my community — make a difference,” Beals said. “Get some of that equity back.”