If Prisoners Could Vote

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S1: You might have noticed something over the past few years. Happening now, there’s a push by some Missouri warmakers to this wave of states restoring voting rights for people who’ve served time in prison for serious crimes. Kentucky’s new governor has given voting rights back to more than 140000 felons.

S2: Governor Genea, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a sweeping order today to restore voting rights to more than two politically speaking felons.

S1: These actions have been seen as a way to run up the score for Democrats. It was just conventional wisdom back when Virginia’s governor expanded voting rights in 2016.


S2: Republicans in the Commonwealth quickly accused the governor of abusing his executive power to help Democrat Hillary Clinton win a battleground state governor.

S1: But that idea that ex-felons are going to end up voting for Democrats. The thing is, it’s all just speculation. We don’t actually know very much about the politics of currently incarcerated people. This is Nicole Lewis. She’s a reporter for the Marshall Project. It’s a news outlet that covers the criminal justice system. And when Nicole hears people going on about what kind of effect these formerly incarcerated people are gonna have on elections, she says you don’t know what they think.

S3: The little bit that we do know actually comes from data about people who’ve been released from prison. We felt like it was a sort of prime time to get a sense of, well, if folks are gonna be able to get to the polls once they get out. What did they think, you know?


S1: What do they believe in? So Nicole and her colleagues decided to ask.

S3: For the past seven months since August, we’ve been working on a survey of currently incarcerated people.

S4: We talk a lot about polls on this show. State polls. National polls. Polls that shape the Democratic debate stage. Polls that make people shrug. Vote for the other guy. Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most unusual polls we’ve seen in a while. A survey sent to prisons and jails all over the country looking to find out what people serving time think of the policy issues. People on the outside talk so much about it. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.


S1: Giving incarcerated people, even formerly incarcerated people the vote, it’s still pretty controversial in this country. There’s no better example of this than what happened when Senator Bernie Sanders held a town hall last spring on CNN. He was asked whether he thought the Boston Marathon bomber should have the right to vote for it.

S5: And he said, yes, because once you start chipping away and you said, well, look, I committed a terrible crime. Not going to let him vote or that person did that. Not going to let that person vote. You’re running down a slippery slope.

S1: So I believe the anchor who is hosting this broadcast, he told Sanders he was writing his own opposition advertising. But Nicole Lewis at the Marshall Project, she says the pendulum is already swinging here as more and more states loosen their restrictions on voting. And that’s where this poll comes in.


S6: I imagine your method for doing this survey. It looked a little bit different than a survey that I might take as someone on the outside.


S3: That’s right. So pollsters have an arsenal of resources at their disposal. They have accurate demographic information. They have people’s home phone numbers, cell phone numbers. They can reach you wherever you are. That is not the case in prisons and jails. So we had to be really thoughtful and sort of, you know, figure out what can we do?

S1: The Marshall Project had this tool they could use. It’s called News Inside. It’s a magazine they distribute in hundreds of jails and prisons around the country. So Nicole and her colleagues made a one page questionnaire and a few months back, they added it in. They sent about 100000 copies out. They got 8000 responses there. She even partnered with a company that distributes tablets people use in prison. They found a way to push the questions out digitally, too.


S6: So what did you find? I mean, when you just walk me through your findings one by one with the understanding that, of course, this is just the majority of the respondents, not the majority of people who are actually incarcerated.

S3: Sure. So we found, contrary to popular opinion, that the majority of incarcerated respondents are not necessarily Democrats. There is a large share of Democrats, an even larger share of people who identify as independent and a group of people who identify as Republicans. Right.

S6: You also found that race was like a huge factor in how people identified. Right? That’s right.

S3: And so black folks, more than than any other group were overwhelmingly Democrats and independent and white men and white folks. You know, overall were more likely to be Republican as well as independent. And so it sort of holds true to what we’re seeing in the general electorate as well.


S6: And you also found that Republican prisoners and Democratic prisoners, they weren’t dogmatic in ways that people on the outside may seem to be.

S3: That’s right. And so incarcerated Republicans in particular, they tended to support some policies that are typically understood as pretty liberal, raising the minimum wage rate to $15 an hour. That was something that they supported more than Republicans on the outside. Republicans who are incarcerated also tended to support marijuana legalization at a higher rate than Republicans on the outside. There was one place where they were more aligned, and that’s being opposed to any sort of assault weapons ban. And so we we did see some continuity there for Democrats, incarcerated Democrats. It tended to be sort of the opposite. So they were more in line with their peers on the outside on these policies.


S6: I have this question. I’m not sure you can answer it, but I am sort of curious, like when did it become customary or has it always been this way that people who are incarcerated don’t vote?

S3: Right. So I sort of can answer the question. It’s a big, long arc of history. So there are a handful of states in which people who are currently incarcerated can vote tonight in Vermont. So those are two states in which everyone who’s incarcerated can. But then Alaska, Alabama, I believe Mississippi, there are a few states where depending on the crime that you’re convicted of. You have the right to vote. Now, does that mean that people actually did participate? Not necessarily, no. It can be incredible. People may not know. I’ve reported on felony disenfranchisement in several states. And overwhelmingly, people simply believe that a felony conviction bars them from voting for the rest of their life. That comes up so many times. And even felons themselves believe that.


S6: That’s right. So even if you get out of prison, you may just think, oh, I’m not supposed to do that.

S3: That’s right. And in places like, for example, in Texas, there was a case where a woman voted and she was resentenced to five years in prison because she was not able or not legally able. And so there that’s the kind of thing that depresses turnout overall. That’s right. There’s a real threat of if I do this, I could go right back to prison. And so why would people take that chance? There’s a lot of confusion. But the sort of overall arc of felony disenfranchisement laws, we have to kind of go all the way back to the Jim Crow era in which states were grappling with the idea of black people voting for the first time. And so many states started to pass laws that linked disenfranchisement with a felony conviction. And so we’re still grappling with the ramifications of those kinds of laws.


S6: Yeah. I’m so curious, because it’s it’s it’s late. It feels like accepted knowledge in the United States. And I have no idea. It’s interesting that you talk about Jim Crow. Like I sort of wonder before Jim Crow was it was voting even linked with what was actually there was.

S3: So there has been this notion of a civil death. Just the idea that if you cannot follow the laws of society. And you’re not allowed to participate in it. And so that’s the sort of earliest starting point of linking voting with criminal convictions seems like almost like a medieval concept. It’s around the time of, you know, the Revolutionary War and, you know, people the founding of the country and folks trying to figure out what is democracy and what are we doing. And if we have these social contracts and you can’t follow them, what does that mean? You know, it’s been a concept that’s been around in American culture for a long, long time. But as you move forward in history, what we really saw was that there’s a proliferation during this period of racial progress and backlash. And so a lot of the advocates who push to Reen franchise people with felony convictions really situate and really locate the problem in that era. As we know, black people are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system and therefore they’re disproportionately affected by felony disenfranchisement laws.


S6: And I think the reason why politicians would. Say. Why they have trouble embracing this idea is that they think of taking away voting as part of the punishment. You know, this is part of how we express to you how much our society disapproves of whatever you did. What would you say to someone like that?

S3: Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve spoken to in the process of reporting this story, many people who are currently incarcerated and they always reframe for me. We are removed from society as punishment. That is the punishment. And so there is not quite the same understanding of why does this secondary thing follow me in some cases, even when I get out. All right. And so in states where you cannot vote until you complete the totality of your sentence, whether that means parole and probation, it’s confusing. It’s confounding. You know, why would that be the case if being sent to prison as punishment alone? And now I’m on the outside. Why doesn’t this vote this right automatically return to me? So there’s just this fundamental questioning of why these things are linked.

S6: So. Looking back now, is there anything in particular that stood out to you? Either one of those paper responses. One particular person or one broader finding?

S3: What’s been most interesting to me is this result that we found that for people who’ve spent decades in prison, they are more tuned in, more interested in politics, talking about politics, more more motivated to vote than people who’ve been there only a few years. Why that surprised you? Because I would think that if you’re spending 20, 30 years behind bars, that you might feel a certain level of apathy. You might be very dejected. You might think, well, none of this really matters. Right. I’m in this sort of low place. I often joke with people to think about, you know, when it rains. General voter turnout is down. Right. That’s something that we’ve seen across the board. And so you think about just how these small little things in our everyday life can make it hard for us to get to the polls and and really participate. And so now we’re talking about people who’ve been years and years in prison. And so why why should they care anymore? What? What, what? What difference does it make to them? And that’s just it’s not what we found. And that in some cases, particularly for people who are lifers, there’s a real expertise there, real understanding of the legislative process of how bills get passed. Right. There’s just this sort of civic mindset. And, oh, the part that maybe is a little bit less surprising is that for those folks who may never get out of prison, legal changes are their only hope. And so they are very tuned in. They’re paying attention. But I think on a sort of human spirit level, I wouldn’t necessarily think that people would be that engaged or that informed and hopeful still.


S7: We’re going to take a break in a minute.

S8: The other person behind this survey, when I first came in, I didn’t really care too much for pollak’s. This for one, I was young. You know, when did that change? Well, it started to change after I grew up. You know, and unfortunately, I grew up in prison. That’s when we get back.

S1: A few desks away from Nicole Lewis, the Marshall Project. That’s where Lawrence Bartley sits. He’s one of the people who was integral to getting all these surveys into the hands of prisoners around the country. And now he sifts through their responses every day.

S9: Yeah, you should see what my desk looks like is the messiest death in office. Is just so much joy at it.

S1: LAWRENCE at its news inside that publication, the Marshall Project folks distribute to incarcerated people had some pretty strong opinions about what this survey should look like, how it should be written. He even had a pretty good idea of what kind of responses that get, but not just because of his journalistic instincts. Lawrence served a prison sentence. He went in at 17. He shot a gun in a movie theater and killed someone he served just over 27 years. When Lawrence thinks about growing up, becoming an adult, finding himself, he did all that work while incarcerated.

S10: Like, I know how they have these kids who go into college, day four, they go into the ACS. What they want to be the good stuff is I don’t really know what I want to be. And I kind of figured themselves out when they go to college. Well, while prison is like a upside down college, you know, some some particularly for a person like me when it is 17, you go in is like, you know, I don’t know what I wanted to be in in my sentence said I can’t be anything. I’m a loser. I could just be in here forever. But in order to resist that, I wanted to better myself and tell myself I can be somebody, whether in prison or out of prison. Now, Maccabee somebody to my peers. I’ll be somebody to my family. And if I if I get out, I could be some someone, you know, that that the world would like to have in that I’m pushing something forward in the world.


S1: Working for the Marshall Project, publishing the news inside magazine. It all became Lawrence’s way to be pushing something forward in the world. And he liked the idea that the survey would acknowledge that people in prison are also pushing something forward in the world.

S10: This survey, you know, I see these national polls, they get about 400 to a thousand respondents. And by put in this survey and news in site, we got over 8000 responses. And this still rolling in today. People are really like, yo, this magazine cares about me. This magazine really wants to hear what I have to say.

S11: Yeah. I mean, the results the results, I think might surprise people. They might not surprise you, but I think about it. I think, you know, there’s there is a conversation happening right now about should we restore the right to vote to felons? You look at Florida where, you know, more than 20 percent of the black population couldn’t vote because of felony convictions. And now that might change. So there’s this open conversation about what should we change, how far should we go? And it was interesting to me reading the results, because to me, they seemed like the ultimate rebuke to the idea that prisoners as a group were somehow different than everyone else. Exactly. You know, like you had, you know, white people were more likely to vote Republican. A substantial portion of people approved of Trump’s record and would vote for him if they could. I wonder what surprised you in the results and what didn’t?

S10: To be honest, nothing really surprised me.

S12: I was. I was.

S9: I was more surprised that people on the outside didn’t know it. That’s what really surprised me.


S11: I mean, the surveys showed that people inside for more than I think a couple decades were more politically engaged. And I think that surprised some of your colleagues. But it sounds like exactly what happened to you.

S13: Yeah, definitely. I remember when.

S14: When I was on the inside, when I was 11, I was very young. I’ve met this guy. Old the guy. I thought he was cool. He has some stand up principles in every one idea. A lot of people looked up to him and I liked them a lot. And he was like, fair to people. I was like, always a pretty cool guy, you know. But then I heard about, you know, what he did to get himself in person or what he was accused of doing. I don’t.

S15: You don’t talk about each other’s cases much. I don’t know who’s innocent and who’s guilty. But I knew that he was convicted of doing something horrible.

S9: Well, it wasn’t. It was. He’s convicted of committing a crime in which many people were killed.

S13: And and I thought about Assa. I’m thinking that I would never do anything like that.

S15: But I started to look to see who this individual was. And he was consistent for 20 years. He was. You were basketball games. He will always encourage he wasn’t he wasn’t the smartest person, but he will encourage other younger guys to make sure they go to school when someone would try to steal something for someone else. He would tell them how you shouldn’t do anything like that. And you know, and what you say to one person, stand on that. Don’t say one thing to one person. They say something to someone else. And he was that way with people who are incarcerated. And he was that way with God. But I knew that he had like close to 200 years to do. He would never get out, you know. And I thought in my head, I was like. And, you know, when I leave here, you know, I got a lot of time to do. I think you value twenty seven days leave here. He’s going to be old man. He’s gonna be here. Any is he’s in his 60s.


S16: And I was like, how I wish I could do something for him, you know? And I said, I think that in my head and you know, when we’re doing this process with these cerveza, I’m gettin I mean, tons of mail. Regular news inside just because of this. I get tons of mail every day all across the country. But when a survey hit, I’m gettin more magnified at times 10 and I’m open in his letters and get ready to process these surveys. And I open one letter and it’s from him. And and he didn’t say much. He said, I hear you’re doing great things out there. He said, you know.

S15: Here for a long time, and and and I was like, I don’t have a chance, but now what you’re doing with this survey, I think someone like me may have a chance to get out of here. So I just want to let you know to keep doing what you’re doing. I really, really appreciate it. And I was like, wow.

S16: I just sat back for about five minutes just reflecting on everything I told you and what that what the survey might mean to him and what it may mean to other people like him in this country.

S17: Can you tell me if you’re going to be able to vote this time around? Interesting question. I was.

S15: I was paroled in New York State, which is one of the three states where people who are on parole can’t vote.

S16: However, the governor, Andrew Cuomo in New York, he made a policy change.

S12: So allow people to vote who are on parole in New York, who fit certain criteria to give giving support and to vote.


S16: And I fit that criteria. So I voted for the first time in 2000 and 18.

S15: And I was so great, so happy.

S17: Oh, I see. You’re wearing the sticker.

S9: Yeah. What a sticker. I took a photo of it. I posted it on social media. Me wearing a sticker was so great. So then I moved to Connecticut about six months ago and move to a better place. My family, you know, have young children and looked at the lowest there. And while a person’s on parole, a person can’t vote. So I’m like, wow. So that means I can’t vote while. Wow. Connecticut sounds like as it stands now. No, I can’t vote.

S14: I’m free of doing not committed any crimes. I did this whole survey. National survey about people being to vote.

S18: And me, I can’t vote when something is is taken away from you, like your freedom, like mine. I always just wanted to be free. And the same thing when my my right to vote was taken away from me. I just wanted to vote. And and I just want to know, what if what if everyone just can vote? What would our country’s leadership be like? You know what? If it was really fair, like everyone can vote. You know, disqualifiers, that will really be truly a democratic system.

S19: Lawrence Bartley is the director of the news inside publication for The Marshall Project. Earlier we heard from Nicole Lewis. She’s a staff reporter for the Marshall Project. The prison survey we’ve been talking about, it was a collaboration between the Marshall Project and Slate. You can go read more at Slate.com. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson. Jason de Leon Morris Silvers and Daniel Hewitt. We had a ton of help from Allison Benedict on the show. She is Slate’s executive editor. Let us know what you thought. You can find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. And tomorrow you can catch Lizzie O’Leary in this chair. She’ll be here with what next TBD. I’ll be back in your feed on Monday. I’m Mary Harris. Thanks for listening.