Ballots Behind Bars: The Other 1%

Why inmates should have the right to vote.

America has about 5% of the world’s population but about 25% of its prisoners. A whopping 1% of our adult population is behind bars. We are bursting at the seams with inmates. California’s 33 prisons, for example, are meant to hold 80,000 but now contain 140,000. One in three black men can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.

Let those figures sink in a moment. They are, among other things, the cruel result of three decades worth of taking the Band-Aid approach to crime where we throw the guilty in prison and turn our backs. Politicians, ultimately equipped not to figure out the real answers to problems but to tell us what we want to hear, spout off manly-sounding clichés like “get tough on crime…” while neglecting the reality hidden in the ellipses: “…which means a higher percentage of your tax dollars will go to inmates” or “…which means recidivism rates will forever remain high because no roots are addressed and nobody is rehabilitated.”

Years ago at a local town-hall style political debate in Pennsylvania, a community member asked the candidates where they stood on the city’s crime question. Minutes later I watched in damn-near horror as several members of the public stormed out when one candidate spoke of how it’s in the best interest of the public to rehabilitate and not just punish those incarcerated. That particular candidate, despite having charisma, being a renowned prosecutor and having high-profile endorsements was on the losing end of a lopsided victory by the rough-and-tough lock’em up candidate. Political pundits said it was his stance on crime that cost him the election. What they really meant was that the truth cost him the election. While a worthwhile argument could be made about the failures of the prison reform movement, or, perhaps more fitting, of the failure on the American people to recognize the necessity of prison reform, let’s instead dive into our focal question:

Should inmates be allowed to vote? If so, which inmates and under what circumstances?

In the United States, Maine and Vermont are currently the only states that allow felons to vote while serving their sentence. Virginia is actually notorious internationally for imposing lifelong bans on felons. The woman who totally snapped and killed the husband who had been abusing her for years? Yup, even after she fulfills her prison sentence and is reintegrated back into society she may still not have the right to vote in Virginia. In most of the world’s democracies, ex-offenders get their voting rights back the day they leave prison. There are certain circumstances, however, such as in New Zealand where they can ban election fraud convicts the right to vote for a few years.

Strict felony disenfranchisement is not restricted to America, though. The European Court of Human Rights recently declared that prisoners should be allowed to vote, but David Cameron, despite the potential of being fined under EU law, said he would ignore such declarations. As a result, many of the 87,000 inmates in the UK are now taking legal action against the government. How many of these inmates would have actually voted in the first place is tough to tell, but people are more apt to take action when something is taken away from them, even if it was something they didn’t particularly care about in the first place. And in Australia, inmates are denied the right to vote if they are serving a sentence longer than three years.

As for race, well, Southern states in the post-Reconstruction era enacted all sorts of voting restrictions such as literacy requirements and even poll taxes, all deliberately designed to disenfranchise African-Americans. Today, with such a huge number of African-Americans incarcerated and denied voting rights, it’s easy to see that this is no coincidence. In fact, GOOD ran a piece last week titled Increased Voter Turnout Myth in which Becky Pettit, Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, argued that while the number of young black voters in 2008 broke records, the actual fraction of young black voters was about 20% – the same as the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. The reason? That prisoners are unable to vote. Pettit sharpens her argument with: “The perception of growing political involvement of young black men is simply an illusion, an artifact of survey methods.

Based on 2008 voter turnout numbers, we can assume that about 60% of all eligible voters will cast their ballot this year. Should any felons be allowed to vote? I think of certain criminals detained due to Three Strikes Laws, of those serving serious time for marijuana possession, of those good people who were caught in bad situations and acted on passion as I know I very well may have, of some inmates I’ve met, of the raw sincerity in Troy Chapman’s voice on NPR, hell, I even think of Red in The Shawshank Redemption. Then I think of the people who couldn’t stand to hear truth at that town hall debate, or of people imprisoned by their blind allegiance to racism or party affiliation or religious beliefs or even mental challenges who will step up on November 6. Yes, inmates should be allowed to vote. But which ones? And who chooses?


About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. Voting is a privilege, not a right. If the rules of the game are stated up front, I don’t see what the problem is.

    The more important fundamental problem is changing what constitutes a felonious crime and one worth imprisonment. I don’t think drug possession of any sort should land one in prison, but a person who commits murder definitely deserves to be in prison and I have no problem with taking away their voting privileges for the rest of their lives if they should be paroled.

    The same theory of retributive justice is applied to gun ownership by felons. Though we have a 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, felons are usually stripped of this “right” or privilege. It’s probably wise to place this limitation on gun ownership.

    • Cameron Conaway says:


      Thanks for your feedback here. Your problem seems to be with the prison system in general, the root. If those incarcerated for drug possession were released we would increase the number of eligible voters by hundreds of thousands.

      What do you think should be the punishment for those caught in possession? Murder is murder, but should the crime of passion scenario add shades of gray? I mentioned the woman who snapped…should her voting rights be forever stripped the same as the serial rapist-murderer who rampaged communities for years?

      Also, your thought on privilege vs. right reminded me of this:

      I hope to hear more from you. Thanks, Chuck!


  2. Thanks so much for bringing this to our attention, Cameron. I was watching the Houses of Parliament Live when Cameron said he would ignore yet another E.U. directive. You’ve made the case, so I don’t need to add a ribbon to a rose, but wanted to say “thank you” for writing the article. Important stuff, well said. That’s all!

    • Cameron Conaway says:

      jG –

      Thanks for the comment here. I’m glad the article resonated with you. Important stuff, indeed! 🙂



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