In the U.S., if you’re caught boosting cars, robbing liquor stores, or attempting to escape reality by injecting heroin into your veins, you not only go to jail, but you lose your right to vote. And you don’t just lose it for the time you’re incarcerated; it’s still gone when you get out. This abrogation of voting rights is referred to as “disenfranchisement.”
Contrast this with the way Israel and Ireland treat their prisoners. Not only are convicted felons allowed to resume voting once they’ve been released, they’re allowed to vote while behind bars. Israeli and Irish courts have reached the enlightened conclusion that prisoners may have an even greater stake in the political process than free citizens.
There are only two U.S. states—Vermont and Maine—that allow convicted felons to vote while incarcerated. The other 48 expressly prohibit it. Some states enforce the restriction until the ex-felon is off parole; Delaware extends the period to 5 years after release. In some states, a dishonorable discharge from the military is considered a felony, making it a disenfranchisement offense.
Remarkably, in some states, a single felony conviction can result in permanent disenfranchisement. A person who gets caught shooting heroin in Kentucky not only goes to prison and carries forever the stigma of being an ex-jailbird (try getting a job with that on your resume), but can be prohibited from voting for the rest of his life.
Other countries tend to be more generous. In addition to the examples of Israel and Ireland, Germany generally imposes disenfranchisement only when the offense involves treason or other state crimes, and China, which is regularly portrayed as this stern and inscrutable dictatorship, usually evokes it only when the crime involves something “political,” such as corruption or election fraud.
But the situation in the U.S. could change soon. Because a disproportionately large number of African Americans are incarcerated (and stripped of their voting rights), these statutes could be struck down. With Justice Sonia Sotomayor expected to lead the charge, the Supreme Court could soon be re-examining U.S. disenfranchisement laws.
And if a re-examination takes place, it is very likely to occur within the context of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (1965), which prohibits the passage of any law that “….results [italics added] in the denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the U.S. to vote on account of race or color.”
The number of African Americans in prison is not only staggering, it’s come to be viewed by much of the world as a form of institutionalized discrimination. Indeed, this wholesale incarceration of African Americans, particularly young black men, has been referred to as the “New Jim Crow.”
Drug sentences for black Americans—whose only crime, if we’re willing to look at it objectively, is wanting to get high—are far more common and far stiffer than for whites, and that stark fact, along with the accompanying disenfranchisement, is the basis of the discrimination challenge under the Voting Rights Act.
The majority of incarcerated African Americans are not doing time for violent crimes (defined by the FBI as murder, rape and aggravated assault). Like most inmates, they’re in there for drug offenses. In fact, if we released all inmates—black, white and Latino—who are doing time for drug offenses or probation/parole violations related to those offenses, our prisons would practically be emptied out.
In summary: (1) Much of the world believes incarceration should not result in forfeiture of one’s right to choose political representatives; (2) U.S. drug laws are weighted against African Americans; and (3) a civic-minded junkie would be advised to shoot up in Dublin, not Louisville.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org