Why Americans don’t vote (and what to do about it)
I was incarcerated three times in my home state of Missouri for drug crimes stemming from my addiction. Felony charges, incarcerations, probations, and paroles kept me from voting for 21 years. For two decades, I had no say in decisions affecting me - I had no voice. In 2014, I completed my final parole, and was once again eligible to vote. I registered that day and have voted in every election since. That is until recently when I lost my right to vote yet again. So what did I do? Commit a crime? Return to prison? Relapse after nine years of sobriety? No. What I did to lose my right to vote was to accept a job and move to Kentucky.
Let me explain. I graduated with a master’s degree in social work last spring, and received a fellowship with the Institute for Justice Research and Development at the Florida State University College of Social Work. My duty station is here in the Bluegrass state, where I help Kentuckians leaving prison to come home and stay home for good. When I accepted the position, I had no idea that Kentucky is one of two states that NEVER allows felons to vote again, regardless of the crime or how much time has passed. (Iowa is the other, in case you were curious.) There is a process in both states for individually petitioning the Governor to have one’s civil rights restored, but per state law, all felons are banned from voting.
I reported for duty in June, just two months shy of the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices and Jim Crow laws targeting African-Americans in the post-Civil War south. Like President Johnson, who signed the act into law, I firmly believe that the right to vote is the cornerstone of American civil and political rights. Yet, today, millions of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Americans may never be able to vote again based on state-level interpretation of the act.
Now I appreciate that many individuals in prison need to be there. They broke the law and should be punished. However, society has made every felony, regardless of severity, a life sentence. How did we get here? After all, 54 years ago, the Voting Rights Act should have ushered in a new era of inclusion and diversity in the voting public.
Well, in the 1970s, Nixon began the “War on Drugs,” which increased severity and sentence length for most drug crimes. These policies, intentionally or not, disproportionately affected African-Americans, and people of color, bringing them into prison at alarming rates. Today, 70% of those in prison are people of color, compared to just 28% of Americans. And 67% were in poverty before prison, compared to 15% of community members. Racially- and economically-biased policies, not differences in criminal behavior, fueled the staggering growth of incarceration across our country.
This is not a small problem - 6.1 million people in our nation cannot vote because of a felony conviction. And more often than not, they are people of color – the very people the Voting Rights Act was designed to protect.
Although Kentucky and Iowa permanently ban felons from voting, unless their individual petition is approved by the Governor, 46 other states restrict voting during incarceration and have complex and expensive processes for regaining the right to vote after release. Many people never complete the process, even when they are thriving in our communities.
While this may be a history lesson for you, for me it’s personal. I want my voice, and the voices of the people I work with every day, to matter. In America, voting is the most powerful way to make your voice count. Voting is also the last level playing field. Whoever you are, white, black, rich, or poor – one voice, one vote. I pay taxes, I contribute to my family and my community. Why don’t I deserve to vote?
Participation in America’s civic process is my freedom, and without the right to vote, I will never truly be free – however far I am from those prison bars.
William Rone is a formerly incarcerated, recent social work graduate working for Florida State University in Kentucky as a re-entry specialist.