I can’t vote. I have voted since I was eighteen but now I’m an ex-prisoner and I cannot vote. Disenfranchisement exists in many forms in many states. Sometimes you get your vote back automatically upon release. Some times you have to go to court to ask permission of a judge.
In three states, Vermont, Maine, and Washington, inmates are allowed to vote during their incarceration. In Canada all inmates are allowed to vote. In America, inmates can run for office in all states, but they cannot vote for themselves, or anyone else.
Why can’t I vote? Partly because I live in Arizona, one of the most restrictive states for restoring voting rights. I have restitution to pay. Any ex-prisoner with fines or restitution cannot vote. It is considered a debt. But other people have debts and can vote. People declare bankruptcy and vote. People walk away from their upside-down mortgages and vote. Voting is a basic right of all Americans and yet inmates and ex-felons are denied that right even after they have served their time and supposedly paid their debt to society.
In the case of many ex-prisoners, the fines racked up can never be paid because they can’t get a job to even begin the process. In Arizona, there are over 100 licenses and jobs related that ex-prisoners cannot have. Here you cannot work as a barber, cosmetologist or nail technician, drive a sanitation truck, or work as a mortician if you have a felony. A DUI is a felony. One person with a DUI cannot be a barber. How can you repay fines if you can’t even get a job?
I know mothers newly released from prison who want desperately to take care of their children. In this economy, jobs are scarce. As an ex-prisoner, jobs are even more scarce. If their crime is related to drugs, they cannot get food stamps. But, hey, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer says, “Have I got a deal for you.” Society puts up immense barriers, then acts really surprised when the ex-prisoner returns to prison within three years. I suppose voting is just a small part of that. I’m worried about voting while they are worried about survival. But here’s the thing, if you feel like you are a part of a community and you have a voice in the community, you are less likely to want to commit a crime against that community. We put our prisons in far away places and forget about them. The inmates are faceless and no one cares. Why should we care about people who have committed a crime? Because if you don’t care about them, they will certainly not care about you and the cycle will continue.
Surely there is a better way. We are smart people. We can do better with our prisons, our prisoners, our ex-prisoners. Ninety-three percent will be released into our communities. We turn our backs, they commit more crimes and then go back. The prison budget goes UP, UP, UP while education budgets go down, down, down. My vote is just a tiny part of this huge problem but having a voice is a vital part of democracy. We are a democracy where 5.3 million Americans cannot exercise the right to vote. Why is that punishment added to incarceration, separation from families, inhumane treatment, and fines? I want to know.
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