I Voted – But What about That Other Guy, and So What?

Cellule du quartier d'isolement de la prison Jacques-Cartier de Rennes (France), à travers le judas.

Considering my situation in Finland, it’s easy to forget what kind of a fundamental right voting, making your voice heard in society, is. When an election closes in, I automatically get a letter detailing all I need to know: no registration is required and you’re informed about what the election is on, where to vote and when. I truly wish it would be this easy everywhere but unfortunately it’s not. In my last post I discussed women’s representation, despite they’re voting rights. That post focused on the Pacific Region, so now I would like to make a complete 180-turn.

I want to discuss felony disenfranchisement. John Oliver actually made a piece about this in 2018 ahead of the midterm election focusing particularly on Florida, where felons are faced with long and hard processes to try getting their voting rights back, sometimes in vain. I highly recommend watching that. And I know prisoners’ voting rights have much improvement to be made around the world but because of its current and proverbial nature, I’ll be like John Oliver and focus on the States.

For many, it’s way too easy to think that prisoners deserve every form of punishment society can throw at them. But is it ever noted that at no point of the due process it has been made clear to the defendant that conviction will also lead to the loss of certain civil liberties? Most likely not. And this is even worse if the voting rights aren’t automatically returned upon completing the sentence. You know, upon having paid their debt to society.

Now let’s hop to the USA. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should know that a certain election is about to take place right now – the people have been voting by mail for weeks now already. The Sentencing Project estimates that there are 5.2 million people in the 2020 US election who can’t vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws. That’s more than the population of the US state of South Carolina. Restoring the voting rights or at least easing the application process hasn’t really been on the agenda, but then again that is no wonder: the attitude towards convicted people voting are mainly negative in the States. The possible restoration of one’s voting rights unsurprisingly varies from state to state. Vermont and Maine are the most lenient: allowing all prisoners to vote even while serving their sentences. On the contrary, in some states you lose your voting rights for all eternity if found guilty to some serious crimes. Also unsurprisingly, the issue regarding ex-felons’ voting rights clearly divides people between Republicans and Democrats. What is surprising, however, is the fact not all ex-felons vote for Democrats who mainly campaign for their voting rights.

So why should you, hopefully a law-abiding citizen, be interested in the civil rights of lawbreakers? The point of the corrective measures in any prison system should absolutely be making the prisoner a functioning member of the society: being able to find a legal source of income, being able to start a family, being able to contribute to the communities of their choosing – or in short, being able to live a normal life. One key factor in this process is a sense of belonging, which is close to impossible if affected people lack some of the basic liberties of society. The people around ex-prisoners will likely judge them for years, or even decades, to come. But since in the eyes of the state these people have repaid their debt by serving their sentences, there shouldn’t be any further punishment but instead some sort of help for them to reintegrate.

Even my personal instinct have said more than once or twice that people who’ve gone against the laws of the society shouldn’t be able to choose who gets to make those laws. I admit that I have had that impulsive emotional reaction towards accused criminals. Like we say in Finland: ’saunan taakse ja pallit valtiolle!’* But that is exactly what it is: an impulse. And I for one want to rise above simple impulses – as a citizen, as a politician and as a liberal. What good are politics and the desire to make the world a better place if that world just consists of people acting on the first impulse they happen to have? If you truly want an inclusive society, you start by stopping defining people’s value as a citizen based on the amount of mistakes they might have made.

* ’Behind the sauna and balls to the state!’

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