Allowing prisoners to vote would reform America’s outdated prison policies

by Amani Sawari

Since the U.S. was established, there has never been a time in history where all its citizens could vote.

At first, only property-owning white men 21 and over could vote. In 1868 the right to vote was white men who were 21 and older.

It wasn’t until 1870 that Black men were allowed to vote. It took another 50 years before women could vote. Native Americans were disenfranchised until less than 100 years ago.

Today more than 6 million citizens are still disqualified from voting as a result of their incarceration.

This new suffrage movement has arisen because more and more Americans have come to realize our democracy is flawed due to these draconian practices that inconsistently restrict citizens’ civil liberties. Many other democratic nations, including Canada, Israel, Germany, Norway, South Africa and Spain, fully enfranchise their incarcerated population by allowing prisoners to vote.

Incarcerated citizens have intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system that prison officials, staff and outside citizens don’t. We fail to take advantage of their direct experience to shape policy when we do not take their vote into consideration.

Prisoners’ desire, for example, to make our nation’s corrections facilities safer, rehabilitative and more effective far outweighs that of other citizens because their lives depend on it. We, as a nation, cheat ourselves of the opportunity to shape our system around what works for impacted populations when we do not incorporate their votes.

Currently there is no one held responsible for the deplorable, volatile conditions of our nation’s overcrowded prisons. Prisoners having their voting rights restored would make politicians accountable to prisoners and the conditions of our nation’s prisons.

Restoring prisoners’ right to vote could also reduce recidivism rates. Fifty-four percent – more than half of citizens impacted by incarceration – believe that voting would help them stay out of federal and state prisons and local jails after their internment.

Citizens participating in their society with a feeling of belonging because they are included in the development of law and public policy are less likely to commit crimes against it.

A main issue for citizens reintegrating from prison is their lack of knowledge in the many ways that society has changed by the time of their release. We can help make sure that incarcerated citizens stay informed about societal evolutions by incentivizing them to stay engaged with politics through the practice of voting.

Many incarcerated individuals lost their voting rights prior to ever practicing them. Only 37 percent of today’s prison population said they voted before they were incarcerated.

Felony disenfranchisement is a symptom left behind from Jim Crow. The rights of formerly enslaved Africans were tweaked, trimmed and stripped throughout the Jim Crow era.

A country committed to the abolition of slavery also would need to be committed to dismantling all of those policies that were created to uphold slavery practices – including the exploitation of labor and stripping the voting rights of incarcerated populations.

With the era of mass incarceration ushered in by the failed war on drugs, it’s essential that our government take a serious stance against decades of its dehumanization of prisoners because of overly punitive legislation. We can begin by restoring incarcerated citizens’ voting rights.

Our nation is much too focused on punishment. The rehabilitative aspect of corrections departments along with rebuilding trust in government can be strengthened by fully enfranchising all of our nation’s citizens, including those who are incarcerated.

A graduate of the University of Washington with degrees in Media Communications and Law, Economics and Public Policy, Amani Sawari heads the Right2Vote Campaign and is a leading U.S. champion for prisoners’ rights. She can be reached at 14419 Greenwood Ave. N., Suite A, Seattle, WA 98133 or This article, part of the Pro Con debate on “Should prisoners have voting rights?” was featured in more than a dozen newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times.

Right2Vote invitation: To bring Mental Health Awareness month into the prisons, the Right2Vote Campaign will be collecting art pieces that speak to prisoners’ mental health concerns. Check out the growing Incarcerated Minds: Mental Health Gallery and if you or someone you know who is or has been incarcerated would like to submit art that speaks to this topic, mail submissions to 14419 Greenwood Ave. N. Seattle, WA 98133 Ste. A #132.