Why can’t most people in prison vote? Although states display considerable range of policies on the issue of how––if at all––people can vote after being released from institutions or onto parole or probation, the general idea is that the ballot box stops where the bars begin.
But on Tuesday, 6,195 inmates voted in Puerto Rico’s Republican primary—where they comprised one-sixth of the voters who cast their ballots. Their example challenges many of the premises of felon disenfranchisement, and suggests that fears of what would happen if it were repealed are overblown.
The logic behind felony disenfranchisement within prisons and without is so deeply rooted in American ideas of crime and punishment it can seem tautological: Of course prisoners can’t vote; they’re prisoners! However, recent primary elections in Vermont, Maine, and Puerto Rico challenge that common knowledge and provide a glimpse of what the country’s voting process might look like if the franchise was extended to those serving time.
The origins of disenfranchisement as a vehicle of American punishment are likely traceable to some form of the classical notion of a “civil death.” For the Greeks, the punishment of civil death was akin to capital punishment—a complete extinguishing of the civil rights that Greeks believed constituted personhood, including suffrage, landownership, and the right to file lawsuits. English common law borrowed the Greek concept, and civil death was long viewed as a suitable punishment for felony offenses.