Why America isn’t a democracy
By Briana Kerensky
The 2008 presidential election had the highest voter turnout since Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976. Unfortunately, there were about five million Americans who weren’t allowed to participate in this year’s historic event. Considering that President George W. Bush won by a matter of a few hundred votes in Florida during the 2000 elections, 5.3 million votes can certainly make a huge difference.
As a result of felony convictions, millions of Americans have been temporarily or permanently disenfranchised. And if free and fair elections are what it takes for a nation to be a democracy, then the United States certainly isn’t one.
Currently, there is no federal regulation for voting rights for inmates and ex-offenders. According to the Web site Pop and Politics, the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution states that the voting rights of individuals found guilty of “participation in rebellion or other crimes” can be denied. Under current law, the federal government may not infringe on a state’s authority to grant or rescind voting rights of prison inmates and former felons. Only two states — Maine and Vermont–permit inmates to vote.
In his 1997 article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria defines a democratic nation as one that has free and fair elections: “Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non,” Zakaria wrote. “Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic.”
If one applies Zakaria’s definition of democracy to the United States, is the United States really a democracy? Being that our electoral process excludes approximately 5.3 million people, perhaps our nation is not the absolute bastion of freedom we have always been taught it was.
Melissa Packard is the director of elections for the state of Maine, one of the only states that allow inmates to vote. According to her, Maine has always given people in prison this right, and it is a very important part in making sure the state’s voting process is non-discriminatory and fair.
“In Maine, any inmate can register to vote in the town he or she lived in prior to being incarcerated,” Packard said. “Inmates are only a small percentage of the state… And those people continue to have a voice in the community. Then they are welcome to vote by absentee ballot.”
Some states don’t allow people to vote even after they leave prison. Of the 50 states, 35 prohibit felons from voting while they are on parole and another 30 exclude felony probationers as well. Two states, Kentucky and Virginia, don’t let any ex-offenders vote, even after they have completed their sentences.
Mark Mauer, the executive director of the non-profit organization The Sentencing Project, believes inmates and ex-offenders need the right to vote for the sake of public safety and rehabilitation. The Sentencing Project, based out of Washington, D.C., is dedicated to getting the U.S. to use incarceration as a means of punishment less often and to create more proactive investments in communities and public safety agenda instead.
“It doesn’t make any sense. It’s bad to impose limitations on the right to vote and really makes us less than a full democracy.”
Preventing current inmates and ex-offenders from voting is a practice that extends all the way back to when the U.S. was planting its democratic roots. The nation, newly born as an independent entity courtesy the Revolutionary War, was a political experiment.
“It was a very limited experiment,” Mauer said. “African Americans, immigrants, women and people with felony convictions couldn’t vote. Of course, over 200 years we’ve gotten rid of other ones, and the only block that still can’t vote are felony convictions.”
What is it the U.S.’s electoral process has to fear from inmates and ex-offenders? Is the state afraid of whom they are going to vote for, or is the state punishing them further by taking away a basic American right?
The clause in the Constitution’s fourteenth amendment that allows states to prevent prisoners and ex-offenders from voting is because the Founding Fathers saw these people as “below the system.”
Some defenders of prisoner disenfranchisement claim that when people commit a crime, they are giving up their right to participate in the nation’s affairs. But according to Pop and Politics, when people are stripped of their right to vote, the United States is taking away the suffrage of millions of people who made mistakes and later learned from them and rehabilitated themselves. In addition, some ex-offenders that have lost their right to vote were minors when they committed their crimes.
“Many of these ex-offenders are grown men who made mistakes as teenagers while joyriding in cars late at night. Some are now 67 years old and have never voted,” said Michelle Jawando, the National Election Protection Campaign Manager for the People for the American Way Foundation in a Pop and Politics article.
A recent article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review shows that almost one-third of all former prisoners end up back in the system. According to Mauer, the disenfranchisement of ex-offenders and inmates is a factor in the high return rate of people to prisons.
“Certainly the message that comes across to ex-offenders pretty clearly is that they are of second-class citizenship. They are told that you can live in the community, work and pay taxes but not vote. We can’t integrate people back into the community and help their transition back from prison like this. Disenfranchisement is counter-productive all across the board.”
In a true democracy, all men are created equal. But when the United States disenfranchises millions of people, both current prisoners and people who have left the system and committed themselves to new lives, is our nation really what we say it is? Zakaria said that the simplest definition of a true democratic nation is one that has free and fair elections. But with millions of people left without a fundamental right that comes with being an American citizen, our elections prove that our government still does not view all citizens as equal, and that our claim to democracy is a false one.
Briana Kerensky is a junior journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.