December 12, 2018
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Prison inmates can vote in Maine, and interest this year has been high

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Inmates sit in a history class at the Maine State Prison in December 2010.

Thursday was the last day for requesting an absentee ballot in Maine. The number of people who have voted early this year is outpacing 2012. Included in those figures are prison inmates.

No one keeps track of exactly how many prisoners vote, but Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow them to do so. Other states restrict voting even after sentences are completed, but some of those policies are starting to change.

Compared to other industrialized nations, the United States is one of the most restrictive about allowing those convicted of serious crimes to vote. According to Marc Mauer of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, more than 6 million people are unable to vote in this election, either because they are behind bars or have felony convictions.

That number has climbed sharply over the past four decades, and it’s especially significant for minorities. Most states restore the right to vote after a sentence is completed, some make former inmates re-apply to vote and some ban them for life.

“There are four states — Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — that disenfranchise all offenders for life even for a single felony conviction,” Mauer says.

He says that means someone could be a first-time offender for felony drug possession, get sentenced to a treatment program, successfully complete it and still be prohibited from voting — forever.

“The only way you can get your rights restored is by a pardon from the governor, and in most states that’s a very unusual circumstance,” Mauer says.

At the other end of the spectrum are Maine and Vermont.

At the Maine State Prison in Warren and in other correctional facilities, the NAACP has been holding voter education and registration drives for the past 10 years. This year about 400 inmates participated.

One of them was Doug Burr, who is serving a 60-year sentence for murder. He says he has been following the presidential election pretty closely.

“I look at it like, OK, it could affect my family, could affect people I care about. So I show interest in it, I get involved. I read a lot. I watch the news so I try to stay up, as much as possible, anyways,” he says.

Burr’s not crazy about either presidential candidate. But in the end, he says he voted for Hillary Clinton.

“Call it a little selfish, but I would assume that any type of prison reform would probably come from the Democrats at this point,” he says. “You got a lot of things at stake. You got the Supreme Court. You got judges that will be appointed. So, this election’s huge.”

Rachel Talbot Ross of the NAACP’s Portland chapter says prisoners seem more engaged about this election than usual.

“The enthusiasm and the interest and the commitment to vote feels to us like unprecedented in the last 10 years. It really feels very high, high engagement around voting this year. We’re glad that we helped make that possible for, like I said, about 400 inmates,” she says.

Mauer would like to see other states follow Maine and Vermont’s lead. It is fundamental to democracy to be more inclusive, he says, and over the past 15 years states have begun to reconsider their inmate voting policies.

New Mexico, Maryland and Delaware have done away with bans on ex-felon voting. And Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maryland have extended voting rights to people on probation or parole.

But Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, says there are consequences for committing serious crimes.

“One of the consequences is if you’re not willing to follow the law yourself, then you can’t claim the right to make the law for everyone else, and that’s what you do when you vote. You’re either making law directly if you’re voting on a ballot initiative or you’re making it indirectly by choosing lawmakers and law enforcers,” he says.

Clegg says he doesn’t object to states restoring the right to vote, but in his mind it should be done on a case-by-case basis after someone convicted of a serious crime has been rehabilitated and can demonstrate that he or she has turned over a new leaf.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.


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