Should prisoners vote? Civil rights panel considers it
A Connecticut civil rights panel explored a complicated question on Thursday: should roughly 6,000 prisoners be allowed to vote?
During a four-hour briefing at the state Capitol complex, the Connecticut State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights heard the pros and cons. Supporters said it could help turn inmates’ lives around and give them added political clout, but critics argue that convicted criminals shouldn’t vote until they’ve served their sentence.
"RELEGATED TO THE SHADOWS”
Ron Pierce urged Connecticut to expand voting rights to prison.
“To strip an individual of their fundamental right to vote is to deny that individual their personhood,” he told commissioners.
Today, Pierce is an advocate for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. But he also spent more than 30 years behind bars – and credits voting with preventing him from going back.
“When I became a convicted person, I became relegated to the shadows,” he said.
Pierce and others told the committee that voting is a basic American right – even in prison.
“Enough of the rhetoric,” said Anderson Curtis, a former inmate who now works with the ACLU of Connecticut. “We have the power in this building – at this table – to do things for people.”
“YOU NEED TO DO THE TIME”
Despite the emotional pleas, supporters face an uphill battle.
This year, Connecticut lawmakers abandoned two different bills extending ballot access to incarcerated individuals. Both faced public backlash.
“When you commit a crime and you're incarcerated, that's telling you, ‘Okay, you need to do the time,'" Sharon Scarlett, of Southbury, testified at a March 3 hearing.
Others said the change would be an insult to victims.
“These individuals have inflicted injury on law-abiding citizens,” James Barile, of Somers, testified. “And as a result of their actions, they may have lost the rights to certain freedoms.”
“SERIOUS LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES”
Even Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas had concerns.
“While it is crucial we ensure the right to vote is accessible, these proposals pose some serious logistical challenges, some of which already exist for many incarcerated people who currently have the right to vote under existing law,” she wrote to lawmakers.
Thomas noted that inmates are registered where they live – not where they're incarcerated – so they would have to cast absentee ballots.
“It is not feasible to establish an in-person polling location inside each prison facility,” she said. “Because the absentee ballot applications and ballots must travel through the prison mail system, their delivery speeds are incredibly slow. Oftentimes this means that by the time the incarcerated voter has received their ballot or the town clerk receives their completed ballot, the election may have already passed. Additionally, due to the constant and often short-notice movement of incarcerated people between facilities, ballots may never make it back to the incarcerated voter at all.”
Experts told the panel that other states and countries have made the system work.
“There's been some important efforts in Cook County-Chicago and elsewhere to bring polling places into local jails,” said Dr. Gregory Haber, chair of Yale University’s political science department. “It's expensive.”
Expensive – and it doesn't always work.
Currently, only two states and Washington, D.C. let prisoners vote. According to a recent study, prison turnout was only 8% in Vermont and 6% in Maine.
Despite the challenges, Pierce said it's the right thing to do.
“What is democracy if you don't have the right to vote?” he asked.
The civil rights committee has no authority to craft policy. It issues periodic reports to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Connecticut has expanded felons’ voting rights before. In 2021, lawmakers extended it to people on parole. And in 2002, those on probation won the right to vote.