By Team NIA
Did you know that under certain conditions the United States constitution does not allow Americans the right to vote? We feel as Americans – as patriots, that we are “exceptional” in the world because of values like our solemn duty to vote. Except of course, if an American citizen commits certain crimes in the wrong state.
We are living in a day and age where the overwhelming majority of people who have ever been incarcerated end up there because they wrestle with addictions and/or desperate living that comes with generational poverty. No matter their crime, more than 95% do serve their time, pay back society, and return to neighborhoods expected to fit in, produce and contribute fully and in “normal” ways. As long as they don’t ask to vote. Depending on the state, they had better not ask to have that voice for several years if ever at all again.
One American who is still labeled with the word “felon” even though he went in as a non-violent first offender and was released 3 years ago, said it best. “Why doesn’t the judge just say in court that you are being sentenced to 10 years and the loss of your right to vote for 15 years, as part of that sentence? Do we really think that vote stripping is effective punishment that makes a difference? Do we really think that vote stripping rehabilitates people?”
How do you lose the Right to vote?
Believe it or not the most common way that this right is taken away comes from a 100-year-old legal idea called “moral turpitude”. For under-explained reasons of say, policy expedience, certain crimes are categorized under this old legal idea. Strangely enough today, laws seem to struggle a bit in clearly defining an act of moral turpitude. Attempts often leave it vaguely defined as an “act of baseness, vileness, or depravity.” Most can easily see the problem with this: Moral Turpitude is left to interpretation.
Some states may consider an act a moral violation, while other states will not. In some states aggravated assault is considered a violation of moral turpitude and possession of marijuana is not. While in other states, possession of a certain quantity of marijuana is just as much a felony as aggravated assault, and hence, a reason to strip an American of the right to vote.
How did Moral Turpitude come about?
Beginning in 1891, moral turpitude was used to gauge the fitness of an immigrant seeking haven in the United States. In short, it was used mainly to preclude immigrants from legally entering the United States if they had committed a crime that was considered a violation of our “moral code.”
What are the Repercussions of Moral Turpitude?
When the law is left open to interpretation, a lot of power is given to an individual. That means that the individual moral opinions of a few will filter the rights of millions, and in the process, silence their ability to disagree. “Moral Turpitude” should not be held lightly. What it implied to certain people in certain states in the 19th century may not be fair at all or even make sense at all in 21st century America.
The lack of consistency across states is confusing enough. Commit any crime in Maine or Vermont and you go to jail or prison to pay for that crime. While you are imprisoned you obviously can’t do a lot of things as a consequence of your actions. You can’t go to work, you can’t drive around town, you can’t travel, you can’t go to parenting events, and you can’t get to the polls to vote. But the day you are released to be free to demonstrate your second chance at being responsible, all that changes, unless, you live in one of America’s other 48 states.
In some states, you permanently lose your right to vote once you are convicted of a felony. Some authorities are beginning to express the feeling that this conflict of rights across states creates disharmony among legal systems. It has been allowing states to set moral preference that can be used against ordinary hard working, good-intended people at any time in their futures.
Where do we go from here?
Whether or not you agree about a former felon’s right to vote, the issue of arbitrary state interpretation deserves earnest modern day debate. Ask the question more broadly as you feel more empathy on these types of issues. Research this topic in your state. Don’t be afraid to keep moving America forward with renewed ideas.