In a state where elections are often won or lost by a handful of votes, every vote counts. And yet, every election, nearly 10,000 citizens are prevented from voting.
That’s because the 9,480 Connecticut residents currently incarcerated are unable to vote, rendering our democracy unfair and incomplete.
Disenfranchising our neighbors not only hurts them, it hurts their families, their communities, and our state’s future. In order for us to have a strong, equitable, and accessible democracy, it’s time for us to restore the right to vote to all people.
If we aim to be a leader in restorative justice and providing incarcerated people a real opportunity to re-enter society, we first need to make sure they feel like real citizens while in prison. They should feel they have skin in the game as members of the society we expect them to re-enter.
Studies show that voting — a bedrock of civic engagement — makes people feel they have agency and purpose.
In a 2019 Vox article, journalist Catherine Kim asked prisoners what voting rights would mean to them. Brian Beale said, “If I could add my vote to the process, I can possibly help my community – make a difference. Get some of that equity back.”
It is common sense that is also backed up by the data: maintaining connections with the outside world is one of the key factors in reducing recidivism or repeat offenses. Research conducted by the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons shows that maintaining family ties and easing integration are evidence-based rehabilitation strategies that reduce the likelihood of re-offending. Voting allows incarcerated individuals to remain an active part of their political community, giving them a stake in the society they will rejoin upon their release. Simply put, it is affirmation that they still matter, they are still worth believing in.
In Kim’s Vox article, prisoner Benny Lopez also noted that wrongful convictions should lead us to be cautious in denying the right to vote to people who may be innocent, saying, “I don’t know that man’s situation. I don’t know if he was guilty of what he’s been accused of. So to say, ‘Oh, well don’t give them no rights,’ how do I sound?” Since 1989, innocent people have spent a total of at least 265 years in Connecticut’s prisons, and we ought to be extremely wary of laws that deny innocent people the right to vote.
We must also acknowledge that incarceration disproportionately affects people of color in Connecticut, meaning that Black and brown people are disenfranchised at higher rates than white people. Vera Institute studies show that 41% of the incarcerated population in Connecticut is Black, although Black people account for just 11% of the state’s population.
Our nation has a troubled history of disenfranchising Black people through Voter ID laws and poll taxes, and it is extremely concerning that Black communities in Connecticut do not have proper representation due to prison disenfranchisement. Our voting policies should ensure that people of color’s voices are heard.
Ultimately, the right to vote should be inalienable for our state’s residents. No matter someone’s race, gender, or criminal record, they deserve representation in government because they are a part of our community and our future. Connecticut made headway toward equality in June 2021 by signing into law a bill that restores the right to vote to those who are on parole. While this bill is laudable, it is the beginning and not the end of enfranchisement.
We ought to hear all voices, and restore the right to vote to all people.
State Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden represents the 88th District in the Connecticut House of Representatives.