Spending the day in flip flops heckling adolescents to register to vote is not my favorite thing to do, though it is how I spent more than a few hours this summer. Often, I would encounter underage kids smoking cigarettes and painfully waiting for the day when they can legally smoke in public. They were less than thrilled when faced with the prospect of gaining their constitutionally guaranteed suffrage in a few months.
This is why it bothered me when I met a man who had spent the last 30 years wishing he could vote. The man had been convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana possession, and upon leaving the jailhouse on the night of his arrest; he was wrongly told that he had lost his constitutional right to vote.
Michigan law only bars felons in prison at the time of an election from voting, not those who commit misdemeanors, nor does the law permanently bar any felon from voting.
Upon hearing the news, the stranger reacted in the way I’d expect anyone to who had been lied to. This man had served his time, yet had to incur an additional punishment due to the misinformation of another. The idea of criminals permanently losing their suffrage is a prevalent rumor in many places, though it is a phenomenon with a difficult origin to track.
According to Sentencingproject.org, 5.3 million Americans are prevented from voting due to felon disenfranchisement laws. Prior to my experience with registering people to vote, I had no knowledge of how much misinformation there is out there about voting laws.
The most prevalent misconception is that felon disenfranchisement is a federal law. While the law varies from state to state, the Supreme Court has ruled it will only strike down voting laws if they are found to be discriminatory. What do they think the law is aiming to do?
If we are to take our criminal reform system seriously, we need to look for more effective ways for correcting felons behavior. We need to look for ways that don’t involve labeling them as unable to make a decision that will greatly affect their lives. Taking away certain privileges from felons is reasonable, but those privileges ought to match the crime committed.
A long time ago, the punishment for stealing was cutting off your hand, not your ear. Taking away guns from convicted murders makes sense, but people convicted of theft, or any other charge not directly related to voting should not lose their right to vote. I would only advocate barring a person to vote had they been convicted of voter fraud.
We must expect that no matter how foolish an individual was for committing a crime, that individual is capable of change. Isn’t that the whole point of the prison system: Rehabilitation? If democratic channels are made open to past criminals, they’ll have the chance to become productive members of society.
By the law’s blindness in recognizing variances in criminal acts, felons are thus labeled as simply felons and nothing more. In many states’ laws, there can be no successful felon who has paid his debt to society and is then allowed to exercise a right guaranteed by the constitution.
If the Supreme Court were to make a ruling on the laws barring felons from voting, which would be discriminatory, then maybe more people would know the facts. Then they could begin to dismiss the layers of stigma associated with criminals.