Volume 59

From “Civil Death” to Universal Suffrage: The Case for Restoring a Prisoner’s Right to Vote

by Victoria Sheber

“The day I stop learning is the day I die,” exclaimed a Maine resident registering to vote. The 2020 presidential election was this anonymous voter’s first time filling out the age-old symbol of democracy—a ballot—and he did it from behind the bars of a prison cell. Maine is one of only four U.S. jurisdictions to allow currently incarcerated citizens to vote, but this Essay will make the case for expanding that right to vote to all incarcerated individuals in the United States. Part I will survey a brief legal history of felon voting rights, from the state codification of disenfranchisement for all felons to the modern era of restoring the right to vote for those who have completed their prison sentence. Part II will explore the modern arguments for expanding voting rights to currently incarcerated individuals and examine two states that already have this practice in place, Maine and Vermont. Part III will describe the horizontal scaling (i.e. state action) efforts of this policy innovation, but, ultimately argue that state governments are an ineffective path to universal suffrage. Finally, Part IV will argue that because horizontal scaling is limited and unstable, vertical scaling (i.e. federal action) is necessary to restore prisoner’s voting rights, thus building a more democratic and just society, even for those serving a prison sentence.

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