After months of election hype, polling season is finally upon us. Iowa had its caucus Tuesday, and soon other states will follow suit.
This election is, of course, not without controversy. In St. Louis County, eighteen polling stations are located within a police station, and locating polls in police stations means that those with outstanding warrants may be less likely to vote. Some might fear that entering a police station would threaten their freedom.
And since there are about 450,000 warrants currently outstanding in St. Louis County, according to Dave Leipholtz, the director of Community-Based Studies for Better Together, many in St. Louis County may not vote.
These warrants aren’t all for felonies. Some may be for mundane things, like parking tickets. But if the tickets stack up, and a person cannot pay for them, then a warrant may be placed on them.
In Snohomish County, Washington, for example, a man had an outstanding warrant for “unlawful burning of garbage,” and another for fishing without a license. While the environment may not appreciate these men’s crimes, surely they should still be able to vote.
The disproportionate impact on the poor and minorities is what makes this polling issue concerning to the local NAACP chapters in St. Louis. Because in a choice between freedom from jail and performing your civic duty, which one is most important? The county already has low participation of voting-age individuals in municipal elections, compared to the national average—9.41 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
Low voting turnouts mean that certain groups are overrepresented. Pew research has repeatedly found that those who vote are more likely to be white, older, richer college graduates. Letting them dominate the ballot means that their concerns are on politicians’ minds.
If voting is what ensures a fair shot for everyone in America, then continuing with low voting rates kills that notion.
Some may argue that if people want to vote, they shouldn’t have committed a crime. The felony disenfranchisement laws in the US certainly agree with this position. Forty-eight states, and the District of Columbia, prohibit voting while incarcerated for a felony, while four states deny voting rights to all with felony convictions, even after being released.
Other states prevent voting while on probation. These laws are harsh compared to European allies; about half of European countries allow voting while in prison.
Felony disenfranchisement laws result in about five million Americans being unable to vote, most of which are people of color, especially Black males.
In three states, about one in five Black adults is disenfranchised. Historically, this system was used to stifle the vote during the post-Reconstruction era, and while that may no longer be the stated goal of felon disenfranchisement, it is still occurring to an alarming degree.
Being convicted of a crime doesn’t mean a person is incapable of making the decisions necessary when voting. It means the person has committed a crime. No state makes people take a competency test before voting; that harkens back to the post-Reconstruction and Civil Rights era struggle of Blacks, with grandfather clauses and literacy tests.
What occurs when a person is convicted of a crime that makes them unable to do the simple, civic duty of placing a ballot in a ballot box?
It could be argued that voting is a privilege, and that by committing a crime, you have lost that privilege. But the principle of universal suffrage is that any may vote; voting is not some privilege granted upon you by the gracious government.
Making voting work like that would ensure the government only allowed its supporters to vote. And, for a long time in this country, it worked in a similar way. Universal suffrage allows any to vote because allowing all to vote gives the country more balance.
By denying a large swath of the population the ability to have their say in decisions, democracy is stifled. As the US’w prison population steadily grows, felony disenfranchisement means we lack the opinions of those directly affected by the “tough on crime” policies.
Losing the right to vote is probably not going to deter someone from committing a crime. And the majority of the people affected are not incarcerated at the time.
A Sentencing Project study in 2010 found that 75 percent of those affected by these laws were not incarcerated, but merely on probation. In such a scenario, people are working, paying taxes, and being a part of society, but unable to make decisions regarding society. This loss of an essential right further harms reentry into the community after prison.
Voting is a way to feel engaged in the community. One study, by Uggen and Manza in 2004, found that from individuals that had been previously arrested, those who voted were more likely to not be re-arrested. While this correlation does not mean causation, voting may indicate a desire to participate in larger society, and may tie the person to the community’s well-being.
Polling places should stick to the basics: schools, libraries, community centers and city halls. Placing polling stations in police stations can make people afraid. People should never be afraid to vote. Our country has already struggled with this, with African-Americans striving to vote against the bigoted. Ideally, polling places should be welcoming and easy to get to, so that more people are encouraged to vote.