Schools, town halls, and even legislative chambers are feeling increasingly uneasy these days, besieged by an onslaught of racist hostility. Yet civil rights activists are working to open up new space for democracy in one of the least friendly corners of the country. NAACP President Benjamin Jealous made a bold gesture on Tuesday by campaigning to get out the vote behind bars. The organization registered voters (along with new NAACP members) at several prison facilities in Maine. The choice of location in part reflected Jealous’s family ties, but was mainly due to the fact that Maine is one of only two states that officially enable people with felony convictions to vote from inside prison (the other is Vermont). Other states have enacted a patchwork of laws that constrain people’s access to the ballot based on past convictions. Some states extend voting bans long after a person is released. In some areas, arduous re-enfranchisement procedures quietly exclude the formerly incarcerated from the electorate indefinitely. Despite piecemeal reforms, in total, the government “bars 5.3 million Americans — or one in forty-one adults — from voting due to a criminal conviction, most of which are non-violent in nature,” according to a report filed this month with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by the Sentencing Project, the ACLU, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The groups not that disenfranchisement policies affect over 8 percent of the Black population, “a rate three times the national average.” While incarceration leads to deep social stigma for the convicted and tremendous social loss for their communities, the NAACP’s latest outreach effort may mark a slow shift mainstream political attitudes toward the prison system. In a statement, Jealous framed the connection between voting rights and criminal justice:
"The goal of the criminal corrections system is to educate, inform and better prepare prisoners for when they come home. Civic engagement is vital to cities, town’s states and the nation as a whole. The NAACP is committed to ensuring that every American has the right to vote and the opportunity to vote… Casting a vote, whether it be for President of the United States, Governor of Maine or for ballot measures is a fundamental right in this country. All too often people who are incarcerated lose their voice, their chance to vote, and their chance to be a part of our electoral process.”
Down in Georgia, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit alleging that two people were illegally denied absentee ballots last year during a stint in jail. Voting rights may seem like a side issue in light of the other monstrous dilemmas facing the incarcerated population and their home communities. The overcrowded, inhumane conditions in California’s prisons, for instance, which recently culminated in a brutal inmate uprising, underscores the need for a full-scale overhaul of the corrections system and criminal justice policies. Meanwhile, racialized disenfranchisement extends beyond prison gates: voter ID laws and other logistical obstacles threaten to subtly undermine the voting power of many marginal communities. Incarcerated people lose more than their vote when they’re locked up. They’re typically stripped of their humanity. Changing voting policies would help restore some basic dignity, but the ballot may as well be blank in the absence of major organizing against the criminalization of people of color, youth and the poor. Ending the entire political economy of mass incarceration would not only keep people in their districts when Election Day comes, it would also empower them as citizens year-round. When people are free to contribute economically to their communities, build political power, and advocate for themselves inside and outside the voting booth, that’s civic engagement of a higher order.