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Column: Felons are still citizens

America is as cliché a melting pot now as it was when it was formed. While our great nation suggests a celebration of diversity and difference, its dark history of oppression, slavery and religious persecution sets a precedent counterintuitive to the tenets it was founded on: acceptance, religious freedom and innovation.

Hoping to inspire and uphold these tenets, we operate within an open democracy — where all citizens (above a certain age) should be able to vote to maintain and preserve the nation they live in. Unfortunately, for a large portion of the population, that right to vote is no longer freely given.

The fact is that the American democratic system is still working to disenfranchise minorities and preserve the old, white boys club that got us into messes like the Civil War. Disenfranchisement, which refers to the retraction of voting rights for a variety of reasons, is simply un-American.

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The now-antiquated but American ideology of “no taxation without representation” can and should be extended to include phrases such as “no government-sanctioned murder without representation,” “no imprisonment without representation” and “no systematic oppression without representation.”

While cliché itself, “no taxation without representation” asks an important question: When and why should voting rights be removed?

With 2.2 million people incarcerated, the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population — unless you count Australia’s entire population — and over half (58 percent) of that population is made up of minorities, although they comprise around 25 percent of the total population. The systems set up to perpetuate systematic racism and oppression are further exemplified.

Sometimes referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” public services are often deleterious to the lives of minorities, specifically Hispanic and black Americans. With drastic education cuts in our state budget and across the nation, the problem isn’t being solved on the front end. Subsequently, felon disenfranchisement is even more important.

The stigmatization of prison time can be crushing to the lives of former criminals in the eyes of the unincarcerated public, and that stigmatization comes with restrictions to voting. In every state except Maine and Vermont (where everyone, including inmates, is allowed to vote) felons are disenfranchised.

This disenfranchisement, which affects 5.85 million people due to a felony conviction, contributes to continued socioeconomic disparity, which, in turn, causes increased crime rates. Social restrictions such as disenfranchisement and hiring difficulties for ex-felons force them into stagnancy within the community they started in, perpetuating a cycle of crime, incarceration, disenfranchisement and reduced opportunity. And it is showing no signs of stopping.

The fact, then, that one in 13 black Americans is prohibited from casting a vote in the U.S. is shocking. Since the people who can vote are making no effort to reduce institutionalized oppression and prevent the rampant incarceration of our population — in some cases, voters are striving to increase criminalization of drug activity and sex work, which would increase incarceration — it is not surprising that states aren’t pushing for voters’ rights for felons.

Laws promoting disenfranchisement don’t even hold up to their self-reported goals of preventing voter fraud and maintaining an accurate representation of the American voice. According to The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, groups focused on restoring voters’ rights to felons and other disenfranchised groups, these laws have “no discernible legitimate purpose.”

Disenfranchisement has also largely been shown not to be an effective crime deterrent, as recidivism, or returning to crime after “correction,” has a negative correlation with voting.

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, has said it best: “You’ve done your time in prison; now you’re living in the community. You’re expected to abide by the rules of society, pay your taxes, get a job. … It’s counterproductive to the community at large for us to essentially be treating people as second-class citizens.”

While Arizona is a state where some people with felony convictions are allowed to vote, we are in the top 10 states with disenfranchised populations, with over 4 percent of our population ineligible to vote.

If we want to make even the tiniest changes in protecting our citizens from a system designed to keep them down, we need to offer past victims of this system the chance to voice their opinion on how future generations could be kept out of danger.

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Nick Havey is a junior studying physiology and Spanish. Follow him on Twitter.


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Updated May 18, 2021