Prisons and Voting Inequity: The Secret (But Not Really) Relationship

You probably clicked to read this blog post for one of two reasons: 

  1. You already know what I’m going to say, and you’re coming along for the ride.
  2. Your forehead wrinkled in confusion as you wondered what the prison system has to do with voting rights. 

Either way, you’re here now, and I hope you learn something new (to you). 

A Prison System Riddled with Racism

1 out of every 5 prisoners in the world is incarcerated in the United States. In any given year, the U.S. represents about 4-5% of the world population The global incarcerated population (in prisons and jails) is about 11 million, and we 1.3-1.4 million of them here. Our current prison system is the descendent of previous systems rooted in racism. That means our current system has roots there as well. 

The U.S. prison system has always disproportionately affected marginalized groups, beginning with higher than expected incarceration rates. States incarcerate Black Americans at a rate 5.1 times higher than white Americans. In Wisconsin, New Jersey, Vermont, Iowa, and Minnesota the rate is higher: 10 to 1. 

Black Americans make up 50% of the prison population in 11 states. In my state of residence, Maryland, Black Americans comprise over 70% of the population. 

Looking back in history, it becomes apparent that the prison system has been the place society tossed those on the fringes since our founding. These fringe groups include Native Americans, Black people, non-English speaking immigrants. 

After the end of the Civil War, most states in the instituted Black Codes, which outlawed normal behavior for black people. The prisons inflated with occupants and convict leasing became common practice. Over 90% of the Southern prison population was Black.

In the 1960s, the federal administration at the time associated street crime with civil rights activism. In the 1970s, we saw the rise of mass incarceration which also coincided with a recession that hit minority communities harder than white communities, and “The War on Drugs.” 

Also around that time, the U.S. experienced an urban flight that saw wealthier citizens moving away from the urban areas. They took their retail spending and tax dollars with them, further impoverishing the areas they left behind. 

Voting and Representation Denied

In 47 states, convicted felons don’t have the right to vote while incarcerated. Some states don’t allow people convicted of certain felonies to vote. Iowa takes a blanket approach; the state doesn’t allow people convicted of felonies to vote at all. But they still count for the census.

Stick with me here, I know that seems like a bit of a jump. What do prisoners have to do with the census? Well, when it comes time to count the census, prisoners are counted in the district where they are housed, not where they lived prior to beginning their sentence. Additionally, prisons are disproportionately located in majority-white areas

This matters because the government created the census for political district reapportionment. These districts are supposed to equally divide the population. Therefore, mass incarceration takes away the right to vote and forcibly redistributes some of the population, affecting the voting power of the areas they came from.

New York State is a great example of this. The vast majority of prisons are located in upstate New York, a majority-white area. About 66% of the prison population in those prisons comes from New York City’s boroughs. Despite being residents of New York City, the census counts the prisoners as part of the districts in which the prisons are located. 

D’Andrala Alexander, a mental health professional who worked with incarcerated individuals, gave me another great example. “Cities like Huntsville, TX with a total population of ~41,000 have a prison population of ~13,000 (about 30%). These incarcerated individuals increase the region’s political power while being denied the right to participate in the political process.”

“The criminal justice system uses Black and brown bodies to boost their town’s voting power in the same way that southerners used slaves in the 3/5s compromise,” she added. The three-fifths compromise was an agreement between the North and the South that slave populations would count for three-fifths of the total population for representation and taxation purposes. 

What About Voter Suppression?

Voter suppression doesn’t sound like a term we should be throwing around in 2020. When it’s brought up in debates, it’s often met with derision. But certain laws and policies disproportionately affect older citizens, those in rural areas, and people with disabilities. 

Voter ID laws are incredibly contentious. It can divide the holiday meal table quickly. Many Americans don’t understand how voter ID laws can suppress votes. As an Army veteran, I always had my ID card and ID tags on me at all times. 

But I invite you to think back to the last time you went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in your area. It’s never a short trip, and for those who cannot afford to take time off, it becomes an easy task to put off. 

Not to mention, we don’t typically keep the types of documents required for an ID on hand. Obtaining duplicate copies of those documents can be costly, and the same goes for the ID itself. Over 21 million Americans don’t have an ID card, but 36 states require them to vote

Voter roll purges are another form of suppression, especially as their use has dramatically increased over the years. Voter roll purges remove people who have moved away or passed away, thereby keeping the accounts accurate. But their use has come under scrutiny. 

Over 70% of the voters purged in Georgia in 2018 were Black. Most voters don’t know they’ve been erroneously purged until they arrive at the polls. Only 40% of voting locations are accessible by people with disabilities, which means they must travel further to find an accessible location or not vote. 

In areas with larger minority populations, the voting locations have a lower ratio of poll workers to voters, which often increases waiting times. It’s even worse for those who fall into intersectionalities such as living in a majority-minority location and also having a disability or living in a rural location and being elderly. 

Prison Systems and Voter Suppression = Inequities for Marginalized Groups

For many, these systems have always been the way they are. Things we’re used to often don’t warrant intense scrutiny. They fly under the radar. But we’re pulling back the curtain on this complex system that continues to dilute minority voting power and strip citizens of their rights. 

It’s apparent that this is much larger than any one person. A single person didn’t create this system. It is the product of those in power protecting their best interests. By continuing to dance to this tune, by continuing to go through the motions, we become unwitting pawns in subjugating our fellow citizens. 

D’Andrala is a speaker for the Culturally Competent Conversations for Equity and Belongingness (C3EB) Summit.

Register today to keep the conversation going.





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