For the sixth time since 1999, the Maine Legislature is considering a bill that would strip some state prison inmates of their right to vote. Maine and Vermont are the only two states where it’s legal for state prison inmates to vote.
The latest proposal, LD 573, sponsored by Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, seeks to amend Maine’s constitution to prohibit voting by state prison inmates “convicted of a crime for which a sentence of imprisonment of more than 10 years may be imposed.” In Maine, those crimes include murder and other Class A felonies.
A March 4 public hearing on LD 573 drew impassioned testimony from family members of murder victims, who argued that the people who deprived their loved ones of the right to vote should not be allowed to exercise that right. Others, including a Maine woman whose son cannot vote because he’s incarcerated in Texas, testified that revoking some state prisoners’ right to vote would be discriminatory and contrary to Maine values.
The debate raises difficult questions about justice, democracy and public safety. It is unjust that murder victims cannot vote, but could Maine rectify that injustice by denying another person’s right to vote? Would revoking prisoners’ voting rights further diminish their respect for the law, isolate them from society and make them more likely to become a greater public threat when they are released?
Legislators must sort through those emotional questions when considering LD 573, which would require passage by a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to prompt a statewide referendum on the proposed change. We believe they should follow the example of past legislatures and make no changes to the voting rights established in Maine’s constitution.
In American society, incarceration functions to protect the public from dangerous people, punish those people for their crimes and reduce the likelihood that they will commit new crimes upon their return to the community. Prisoners lose the privileges and many of the rights afforded by a free society, but voting allows them a rare opportunity to fulfill one of the responsibilities of citizenship without causing harm to others.
Research by sociologists Christopher Uggen and Chris Manza shows that felons who voted were less likely to become repeat offenders than those who could not cast ballots. Conversely, the disenfranchisement associated with being barred from voting heightens their isolation, making them a greater threat to society.
For inmates serving lengthy sentences for serious crimes like those included in LD 573, social reintegration might seem irrelevant. But revoking their right to vote would likely undermine what respect they have for the rule of law, making them more dangerous within the prison system and when they are released.
Speaking against the bill, Laurent Gilbert, a former U.S. marshal, Lewiston police chief and mayor of that city, told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that he had “brought to justice many who were guilty of some of the most heinous crimes.” Gilbert said those experiences affirmed for him “that maintaining the dignity of the human being is of utmost importance for a person to accept responsibility for his or her actions. As such, it has led them toward some form of rehabilitation, which should always be our goal in a civilized society.”
Removing the right of some inmates to exercise their legal responsibility as voters in a civilized society would undermine that civilized society.