I am well aware that, for years, activists have engaged in political and ideological disagreements about how far the new suffrage movement should go in fighting for the voting rights of people with felony convictions. I’ve been in prison for 25 years, following all the ups and downs. However, it is time to bring some hard-headed realism to bear on this longstanding contradiction in U.S. democracy.
Let’s take a mental leap: Even if politicians eventually conclude that no one of voting age in the U.S. can ever be denied the opportunity to vote — a radical proposition — ordering incarcerated people’s names to be placed on voting rolls would be more symbolic than anything else.
Indeed, bringing a ballot to the cell of someone who is incarcerated would add a veneer of progress to the debate over civil involvement for people with felony convictions, but we must ask ourselves whether that constitutes real progress. The U.S. has demonstrated that it is quite capable of extending “democracy” into almost any field without altering its fundamental structure of hierarchical power relationships.
It’s not difficult to fill multiple libraries with critiques of voting rights, particularly directed at felony disenfranchisement. Criticism rightly grew during Reconstruction (1865-1877) when state after state amended their constitutions to restrict voting eligibility — sometimes permanently — to thwart formal political power of people of color. These criticisms were kept alive during the 20th century as the civil rights movement grew, and later as U.S. incarceration rates skyrocketed to historical numbers. And criticism has grown dramatically in the past few years as an estimated 6.1 million people with felony convictions have begun to receive the increased and sustained attention of a new suffrage movement.