Sidestepping Civil Death: Why I Chose to Share My Vote This November

Earlier this year the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition (CJPC) launched Disillusioned for Disenfranchised, an initiative that paired incarcerated Massachusetts residents with volunteers from their home county to vote jointly in this year’s general election. The details were open-ended, but CJPC recommended partners start with a letter exchange and go from there.

I eagerly signed up. I grew up here in Massachusetts, and I was in sixth grade when a referendum question sought to take the vote away from anyone serving time for a felony. I remember my Social Studies teacher explaining that year’s referendum questions some time in late October. Another referendum question on the November ballot that year asked whether or not to prohibit dog races where betting occurs. I told my classmates: these questions are easy! Be nice to dogs, and let everyone vote. Massachusetts voters let me down on both counts. I remember feeling confused about why we would ever want to discourage someone from trying to participate in our shared political system. And that was when I still thought only bad guys went to jail.

I also liked the performative aspect of Disillusioned for Disenfranchised: I would cast a vote on behalf of two people—a symbolic shortcut around a problematic constitutional amendment. Sure, it would still only be one vote, instead of two, but it would mean that someone who would otherwise have no way to engage politically could talk through their opinions, gather more information, yield on some issues, win on others, and think about the outcome’s impact on the community. It would allow disenfranchised voters to be heard. The right to cast your own vote is more than that, but not that much more.

Finally, I liked the practical reality of the project. By making myself accountable to someone else, not only would I feel an added pressure to get to the polls on November 8, I would also be sure to show up fully informed about every ballot measure. Since I had to make sure my partner and I agreed on all my votes before they were cast, I had to know everything that was on the ballot.

CJPC put me in touch with my partner Xavier[1] in August. Xavier and I swapped our first letters soon after. He introduced himself[2]:

“I was asked by the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition to see if I was interested in ‘voting.’ I wrote back and said yes, even though I have never voted in my life, since I have been in prison since I was 16 years of age.”

“I was asked by the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition to see if I was interested in ‘voting.’ I wrote back and said yes, even though I have never voted in my life, since I have been in prison since I was 16 years of age.”

He continued: “Now 33 years old, I have realized that instead of me complaining of our elected leaders, with my vision and my vote I can help bring change. By being a part of the solution, not adding to the problem.”

Readers, could you please take a moment to think about how many seconds have passed since you were sixteen. If you had passed every one of those seconds in prison, would you still care about this year’s election? Xavier does. Throughout his letters are clear declarations of how determined he is to get it right: “Since this is my first time at voting, I would like to ask for your advice. Any and all advice will be greatly appreciated as we will be working together.” “I would like to be as informed as I can be because I want to help make a difference. So we can take this time to get informed as fully and extensively as possible.” “This election can assist the highest court in the land by electing another Judge for the replacement of Justice Scalia. I am here to discuss in full so we both can determine what’s our best choice.”

I started to look forward to coming home to find a handwritten letter in my mailbox, sandwiched between political ads and stamped with the tell-tale blue stamp “THIS CORRESPONDENCE IS FORWARDED FROM A MASSACHUSETTS CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION. THE CONTENTS MAY NOT HAVE BEEN EVALUATED AND THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SUBSTANCE OR CONTENT OF THE ENCLOSED MATERIAL.” The stamp was a heavy-handed reminder of all the rules and limitations that governed the place it had come from, but the slanted cursive inside was always free flowing and exuberant: “I love politics, I watch the 6:30pm news everyday to be as informed as possible.” When he found out I was a French citizen he asked if I could write to him about French politics, explaining, “I love to learn so I am willing to listen so I can be taught.”

Xavier is also passionate about teaching: “I am currently in a program where troubled teens come to the Institution to be spoken to about life’s patterns of living and the wild, fast, impulsive way of doing things. It’s a great program. I’ve been dying to do the program for approximately 12 years. Now I got the chance I am so dedicated in making a change where it’s needed. If I can help one kid that is one kid less that we have to worry about! That is one of the things I want to do when I get home: help troubled teens!”

With introductions out of the way, we turned to the ballot.[3] We focused mostly on the referendum questions, since most of the ballot was unopposed Democrats and we were both in agreement that (spoiler) #wearewithher.

I sent him articles about the referendum questions and tried my best to fairly spell out the pros and cons of each without showing my cards. I wanted his opinion to truly be informed and his own, and my unlimited access to the Internet felt as though it could easily lead to an abuse of power.

While we both quickly agreed to vote No on Question 1—the expansion of slot machines at Suffolk Downs—we wavered on Question 2. Question 2 would authorize the expansion of charter schools in Massachusetts. Xavier summed up our concerns nicely: “I believe it will take from public schools. It does have its pros and cons! I get to see only what is placed in T.V. ads, you’re out there with the Internet and all access. What have you read about the charter schools? Who will benefit from these schools, all kids or just a small population of kids? If you can send a little more clarification on Question 2, thank you. If you can not we have to decide what is best for all kids.” Ultimately, his concerns swayed me and we will be voting No on Question 2.

Question 3 proposes prohibiting the sale of eggs, veal, or pork from a farm animal that was confined in spaces that prevented the animal from lying down, standing up, extending its limbs, or turning around. Xavier was matter-of-fact: “I would need more info as I don’t know how big of cages they are in now. I say that because I myself have been incarcerated for 17 years and don’t wish the small space even for animals.” We will vote Yes to prohibit these methods of farm animal containment.

Finally, on marijuana legalization (Question 4): “Yes, its about time they legalize it, it doesn’t get people in trouble. Jail house population is too crowded. Tax paying people don’t realize it costs $40,000+ just for one individual a year, not counting the security level, the age, medical background, etc. of the individual. It’s so much money that is being asked for one year of incarceration … I don’t know maybe I’m getting ahead of myself but in the trade market it would be sold as medication, think about the amount of money it can bring and funds that can be distributed to broken neighborhoods instead of war.” We will vote Yes on Question 4.

I’m sure there are some readers out there with differing political opinions rolling their eyes but regardless of the details of Xavier’s opinions, here are some arguments I would like to make for why he should have the right to express them by casting his own vote:

  • Felon disenfranchisement results in unfair outcomes.

One of the arguments for not letting felons vote is that they chose to give up their civil rights when they chose to engage in criminal activity—restated: the price for criminality is paid for in rights and freedoms. I would argue that at 16, Xavier didn’t actually make that choice, and even for adults I don’t think the rational actor model goes very far in explaining crime in the United States. For example, it’s hard to square rational choice away with the fact that people of color are vastly overrepresented in our jails and prisons. The result is alarmingly inequitable disenfranchisement.

  • Denying the vote to incarcerated individuals is an excessive punishment.

Furthermore, even if I conceded that in every case a person who commits a crime “deserves” the proportional punishment imposed, its not so clear to me that the punishment meted out by the American prison system is really all that proportional. “Doing time” exacts some extraordinarily high costs from the individual, and I don’t think voting rights need to be called into play to balance their societal debt. After the referendum passed in 2000 in Massachusetts, there wasn’t a correlated decrease in sentence time, punishments across the board just got more severe.

  • Incarcerated individuals are still invested in what happens outside prison walls.

Another argument for not letting felons vote is that they cannot be trusted to make decisions that have ramifications for a society they are no longer a part of. To that, I point to Xavier’s responses above. He sees troubled teens come into his institution and thinks of the impact that better schools could make. He is served meat raised in this state and feels ethical qualms about its consumption. He shares a facility filled with people incarcerated for low-level drug offenses and wonders if taxes couldn’t go to a better purpose, like “broken neighborhoods instead of war.” He worries about these issues, contemplates what might alleviate them, and feels their impact.

  • Moral turpitude is not the measure for voting eligibility.

Finally, while it doesn’t always get spelled out, one of the ideas floating out there is that felons shouldn’t vote because they are bad people and they just don’t deserve that right. There is a lot to say about that, but I’ll leave it at this: there are plenty of people who will never go to prison who will nonetheless do horrible things, to friends, to family, to strangers. Sometimes the law will recognize these horrible things as crimes, sometimes these horrible things will be perfectly legal, sometimes it won’t matter what the law says because there will be a lobbyist loophole or an expensive defense attorney. Some of these people who do horrible things will vote, some will pay taxes, some will run for political office. What we look for when someone has done something horrible is ownership, self-awareness, examination, growth. I don’t see it often from our politicians, but I’ve frequently encountered it among the incarcerated. I submit that the intellectual and emotional labor required in recognizing one’s own wrongdoing is the same labor that goes into participating in political discourse.

I’m looking forward to casting my vote on November 8 and continuing our correspondence after that. In a few years Xavier will be up for parole. He’s working hard so that one day he’ll be able to cast his own vote, maybe not in time for Hillary’s second term but definitely in time for Michelle Obama’s first.

As you get ready to cast your ballot in a few days, I’ll leave you with this: “Now I’m in such a state of mind where I must show and prove that I am a capable man to obtain parole as I am not the same person whom made such stupid decisions in his past. Freedom is what I strive for.… I’m just focusing on being a part of change instead of complaining about what needs to be done.”

For anyone looking for more reading on why prisoners deserve the right to vote, Politico and the Washington Post both published great articles this summer.

 

 

[1] I’ve changed his name for privacy.

[2] I’ve made a few edits to the excerpted portions of his letters for readability.

[3] What follows are my and Xavier’s personal political views, and should not be construed to reflect the opinions of the Civil Rights Civil Liberties Law Review or the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition.

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Liz Valentin is a 2L at HLS. She is a member of the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, a student attorney at the Legal Services Center in the Domestic Violence Clinic, and an Executive Editor for Online Content for the Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Liz is also a board member of the Graphic Advocacy Project, a design non-profit that creates customized graphic expressions of law that engage, inform, and empower. Prior to law school, Liz worked for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC, and doubled majored in Philosophy and Government at Wesleyan University.

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