In November’s mid-term elections, more than five million Americans won’t be eligible to vote. Most states prohibit jailed felons from casting a ballot (Maine and Vermont are exceptions), but laws in different jurisdictions can prevent those who’ve served their time from doing so as well. In Virginia and Kentucky, for example, anyone convicted of a felony is barred from voting for life.
Last week, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal from Massachusetts inmates who argued the law amounted to racial discrimination (blacks and Hispanics are jailed at disproportionate rates). And a federal appeals court recently upheld Washington state’s ban on allowing inmates to vote. But there are signs of change. According to a new report from the non-profit Sentencing Project, 23 states have changed their policies since 1997, returning 800,000 ex-cons to the voter rolls. And a bill pending in Congress would restore the vote to about four million former inmates.
Nicole Porter, who authored the report, says that in the U.S., “depending on where you are, your relationship to democracy can be very different.” But just as the social contract holds each person accountable for his actions, “the other end of that contract should be that all adults have opportunity to decide who represents them.”