I am not a free American. If I were, I could have a say in who my next president will be. Because I was recently incarcerated, however, I cannot vote on Tuesday.
I am not alone. According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform organization, I am one of the 6.1 million Americans -- 1 in 40 adults in this country -- who have no right to vote because I was in prison, even though I've paid my debt to society.
The law that strips me of this right, felony disenfranchisement, is not a universally applied law, however. In fact, there are wide disparities between states. While those who are released from prison into my state of Florida, for example, have their voting privileges revoked for life, ex-offenders in Maine and Vermont never lost the right of stepping into a voting booth for even a day. In fact, inmates who are imprisoned in those states right now can vote in this election from the comfort of their cells. Most states, however, don't quite go to either such extreme.
Fourteen states hand voting rights back to prisoners with their driver's license the moment they step beyond the prison gates and back into society. The majority of the remaining states likewise allow ex-convicts the opportunity to reenter the polling booth once they have completed their parole or probation requirements.
As someone who has spent a substantial amount of time behind bars for my crimes, the latter version of the law seems to make the most sense. If felony disenfranchisement laws are based on the idea that violators of societies rules should not be allowed to help set them, then the law-breakers should prove to that society that they have been completely rehabilitated. As my state's leader, Governor Rick Scott, explained, "These are felonies, and we want to make sure people have turned their life around."
But how much proof do you need?
More than half of the ex-felons that are restricted from voting in this country, an estimated 3.1 million people, have done everything the state has asked them to do to demonstrate that they have "turned their life around." Yet, 'everything' is apparently not enough.
In Florida, it seems that no amount of time or recompense will ever be enough. An astonishing reveal from a recent Sentencing Project report proved that ten percent of all Floridian adults are ex-offenders who cannot vote. My state houses almost half of the countries felons who have completely paid off what the state said they owed to society. But the 1.5 million of us here alone are being told that we are still not good enough to completely rejoin this society.
"The message that comes across to them is: Yes, you have all the responsibilities of a citizen now, but you're basically still a second-class citizen because we are not permitting you to be engaged in the political process," said Christopher Uggen, University of Minnesota professor and lead author of the report, echoing precisely how it feels.
Perhaps, considering that over 130 million Americans are expected to come out and vote in the upcoming election, suddenly relaxing the voting restriction to allow these few million disenfranchised ones to cast their choice won't make that big of a difference in the formation of the new political landscape. On the other hand, I live in Florida, the same state where the margin of victory in the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush was a mere 537 votes. With an expected tightly contested election in this state, our vote could indeed be a gamechanger.
Just because we committed a crime once upon a time does not mean that we do not have a valid opinion as to who should run this country. I would go so far as to say, having seen the world from an entirely different perspective than most, and considering that the next elected president will likely have a tremendous impact on the criminal justice system during their administration, the vote of ex-offenders who have succeeded despite our current system would be an especially worthy one.
Letting me vote would not be a reward for repaying my debt. Rather, as far as I'm concerned, it would be a continuation of that repayment. Let me prove that I do truly care about our society, that I am finally free because of it, and that I belong in this country.
Prison Lives (www.prisonlives.com) is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.
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