Speaking in Iowa last weekend, Bernie Sanders said he wants the entire country to allow people convicted of felonies to vote from behind bars, following the lead of his home state of Vermont. In doing so, he joins a long line of socialists pushing for universal suffrage.
Maine and Vermont are alone in placing no restrictions on voting based on criminal convictions. Everywhere else, felons in particular are denied the ballot during incarceration and often afterward. In ten states, it is possible for convicted felons to lose their right to vote for life.
Proponents of felony disenfranchisement laws argue that because serious crime is a breach of the social contract, it is justifiable to expel felons from the political body, even though the right to vote is generally understood as a basic tenet of democracy.
But this is a post hoc rationalization. The real purpose of these laws is political; just look at when and where they first appeared. A wave of felony disenfranchisement statutes swept the Northern states in the 1840s, just as property restrictions on white male voters began to disappear, creating a new working-class voting bloc that imperiled elite political power. Another wave swept the Southern states in the late 1860s, after emancipation of the region’s enslaved population threatened much the same.
Felony disenfranchisement has always been about keeping vote totals down among populations whose interests are at odds with the most powerful members of society. Combined with a well-oiled criminal justice machine that targets poor and minority populations for incarceration, felon disenfranchisement is a convenient instrument for managing political outcomes.
For socialist proponents of universal suffrage, the considerations have always been both moral and strategic. First, all people deserve the right to vote because they are members of society, and socialists are committed to democracy. Second, as Friedrich Engels put it, universal suffrage is “a splendid weapon” that the working class can use to its advantage as it resists capitalist tyranny and endeavors to build a more equal world.
By calling for the enfranchisement of incarcerated people, Bernie Sanders carries on the tradition of socialists fighting for universal suffrage. He has also demanded the elimination of strict identification laws, gerrymandering, and voter purges. Since voter suppression limits the potential of suffrage where it is already legally extant, these reforms, too, are part of the fight for universal suffrage. So, too, are efforts to secure voting rights for all immigrants, including noncitizens.
As Bernie put it, when you’re in prison you’re “still living in American society and you have a right to vote,” plain and simple. It may sound like an obvious point, but the notion that people living in a society have a right to determine the direction of that society has always been debatable at best to the ruling class. And it is socialists who have forced that debate time and again.
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