In a country with the highest incarceration rates in the world, the voting rights of Americans with felony convictions have gained much attention in recent years. Most of the conversation has focused on states that have reestablished rights for those with felony convictions — including, most recently, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Georgia — bringing the total number of states to 15 that have reenfranchised ex-felons.
But what of the other roughly 1.5 million who are still behind bars? The issue hasn’t been in the public discourse as much. The vast majority of states do not allow incarcerated people to vote, and those that do only allow it for people with certain convictions. Though legislators in several states have tried unsuccessfully to introduce measures to restore these rights, only two states as of now allow all inmates, regardless of their conviction, to vote: Maine and Vermont, which have had the rights of inmates to vote enshrined into law since their founding.
In both states, corrections officials and volunteers can help inmates request an absentee ballot and cast their vote. Yet there are additional barriers to voting for people behind bars. Many are restricted from the internet or other ways to access news, and are not allowed to campaign or put up political posters. But most likely the biggest issue is illiteracy — an estimated 60 percent of inmates are unable to read or write. For all these reasons, experts estimate that inmate voting rates are likely low, though because they are not tracked in either Maine’s or Vermont’s prison system, the rates are still unknown.
But this year, one prisoner — a Maine resident and current inmate — is voting for the first time in a presidential election. Here’s how he’s thinking about this election and his right to vote as an incarcerated person.
Normally, I drive a truck in Maine. Now I’m incarcerated and will be released next May. But that’s not going to stop me from checking a big first off my list: At well past the age of 40, I’m going to vote in the presidential election for the first time ever, and I’m doing it from behind bars.
Before I went in two years ago, I never paid attention to politics — I was always gone, busy with my work, life, and raising my kids. But in here, I have time to read my local paper, the Bangor News, every day, watch ABC or CBS, or listen to the radio. It’s been a pretty enlightening experience to learn all that has been going on that I never really paid attention to — how the government works and the laws are made, who gets to make the decisions, who gets to veto this, that, and the other.
Before prison, I never really believed that my opinion counted for anything. But all that’s changed. Now I believe voting really does make a difference. I want to help elect somebody who looks out for the people and not for themselves. Who isn’t trying to get rich off of everybody.
I care about issues like housing and health care for veterans — that’s my No. 1 right now. We shouldn’t have the same people who fought for our country be living in a tent on the side of the road. I also know some candidates are trying to help expand Medicare, Medicaid, which I think is a good thing. My mom is in her 80s and is starting to have health problems. Thank god she had Medicare.
I really believe that trying to get an actionable national health care system going like what Canada has — even if they have to raise our taxes a little bit to do so — is a good thing. When I was a baby, I drank Drano. They replaced my esophagus with a piece of small intestine. They said, “If he lives, you pay the doctor bills. If he dies, don’t worry about it.” I know all about medical bills.
When it comes to how I will vote, we have a lady who works here as the community programs coordinator and helps us with paperwork, helps it get sent in and notarized. The facility is 100 percent behind her helping us all get set up to send in our ballots. The registration process itself is kind of complicated — I sent it in once and had the wrong address. The next time, I forgot to sign somewhere. Now I have everything filled out correctly, so it should be good to go. I’ve already successfully gotten my ballot and mailed it in.
When I signed up to vote, a couple of friends of mine said, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea!” And they signed up right behind me. At least 10 or 12 others in my pod will be voting, out of 32. If that’s an average across the prison, it’s about a third of the population.
To be honest, I feel pretty mixed about the fact that I can vote as an incarcerated person. On one hand, we’re in here, so I guess in the eyes of society, we should’ve lost all of our rights. I do understand that — but on the other hand, whoever’s voted in as president will be my president when I’m free next year. Maybe if I was in here 20 years, then no, I shouldn’t have anything to do with the election. But I’ll be living as a free man under the next administration that is elected. I feel I should get a say in who I want to represent me. If I can do that, I’m better off for it. And I think the country will be better off for it. Other prisoners in the facility would be better off for it, too. They are people as well.
I have to be honest, though: We don’t need someone in office who is like me — who can’t speak, who can’t think quick enough. But we also don’t need someone who is putting all his personal business on Twitter or Facebook. I care about straightforwardness. Whoever I think is just trying to shoot the other guy down is the guy I won’t be voting for.
I’m pretty excited to vote for the first time, not just when it comes to the national government but in local government. And when I get out, I should still have my rights: to take action. To be able to vote. To be able to do anything — except for crimes, of course.
This whole process has actually inspired me. In prison, you have a lot of time on your hands. I’m taking classes to try to improve myself, like a construction and carpentry trade class, the NCCER welding program, the WorkReady program. I have a job in here, too: I do the laundry for those who have minimum-security status. And now I’m casting my choice for who I think should run the country when I get out.
Now that I’m educating myself more — about politics, about how the world works — my days in here are more interesting. The day I stop learning is the day I die.
As told to Hope Reese.