The one-hour car ride back to Cornell from Auburn Prison is a time for tutors to talk about how the night went. On my last trip, a few of the tutors in my car observed a voting poster inside a classroom. They found its presence ironic: after all, felons can’t vote. According to New York state law, no one who is currently incarcerated or on parole can vote.
With the election less than two months away, efforts to register voters are ever present on Cornell’s campus. When I went to Bailey Hall to see a live streaming of the first presidential debate, several event volunteers wearing matching t-shirts stood at a table in front of the entrance. They had clipboards in their hands. Have you registered to vote? They asked. I’m all set, I said, avoiding eye contact. I hurried up the stairs and into the auditorium. In these situations, I dread saying “no” and having to explain myself. I also don’t want to lie and say “yes.” So I generally ignore these questions and move on.
I move on because, similar to the students at Auburn, I also can’t vote. It’s not because I’m too lazy to sign up, or that I have some personal objections to voting, or that I’ve committed some crime. Rather, I can’t vote because I’m not a US citizen. This fact surprises a lot of people, even my closest friends. I’ve lived in the states for more than two-thirds of my life. I speak fluent English. I’m a Government major. But due to the law, I can’t vote until I am naturalized, and I can’t become naturalized until five years following attainment of permanent residency status. I’ve got one year left.
It occurs to me that this is the first national election that my peers will have the opportunity to vote in. Does it bother me that I am ineligible to vote? Not really. I would like to be a citizen and have the ability to vote. But I don’t feel inferior or disenfranchised because I’ve yet to receive this right, in much the same way that I don’t feel any less of a student now because I haven’t received my college diploma. I know the day will come soon.
Unfortunately, this expectation does not apply to everyone locked behind bars. Take voting laws in my home state of Virginia, for example. Unlike New York, Virginia permanently disenfranchises its felons. To address this issue, earlier this year Virginia’s Governor issued an executive order to restore the voting rights of convicted felons upon completion of their sentence and payment of their fines. This order applied to over 200,000 people in Virginia. Opponents of the order decried the Governor’s overreach of authority and brought the case up to the Supreme Court of Virginia. This summer, the Court ruled against the Governor in a 4-3 decision. It declared that his blanket restoration of voting rights violated the Virginia Constitution, and therefore the executive order was invalid.
This case troubled me because I couldn’t understand how re-entry into society did not entail re-entry into political society. I was not surprised by the Court’s holding on the legal grounds. What unsettled me was how this culture of disenfranchisement was still enshrined in the Virginia constitution. Re-entry success stories feature those who, upon release, seize their second chance at life and never go near a prison again. But is that commendable? What the culture of disenfranchisement implies is that no matter how well they flourish back in society, they will never be “good enough” to re-enter democratic society.
George Orwell, known for his dystopian fiction, thought deeply about what a democratic society ought to look like. He wrote in his proposed preface to Animal Farm: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Voting is a way to change the status quo, to advocate a position (however unpopular), and to tell people what they do not want to hear through an institution that the people regard as legitimate. The right to vote matters because it recognizes the individual’s power to shape government at the local, state and national levels. If the right to vote is contingent upon the effects of electoral math, then only a few people’s votes in a few states matter. But the right to vote derives its significance from its representative meaning as a badge of belonging to the very fabric of the community. To deprive people of that right—as Virginia does for felons even after re-entry into society—is to imply that their voices don’t matter in the day-to-day decisions of the political community which constitute what Tocqueville called America’s “great experiment in democracy.”
Voting is a necessary condition to liberty in a democratic society that claims to let all its members speak. Thinking about that voting poster in the Auburn classroom made me realize that my home state is a glaring example of progress that has yet to be made.