“Should Prisoners Have the Right to Vote?”

September 3, 2019 JIE Updates

By Kiana Taghavi

“Should prisoners have the right to vote while they serve time?”

On the evening of July 18th, this question was central to a debate about criminal justice reform and prisoner voting rights organized and led by the Rikers Debate Project, frank news, and New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie

The Rikers Debate Project, an organization of former college debaters, young professionals, and public service leaders, teaches competitive debate skills, conflict resolution, and public citizenship, to those held on Rikers Island. The evening’s event featured four debaters from the program, including formerly incarcerated individuals as well as law students with a deep interest in studying and combating the prison industrial complex.

State Senator Myrie introduced the debate by reiterating the steps that New York has taken to address the injustices within our criminal justice system, such as eliminating cash bail. But he reminded the attendees that people who are currently or formerly imprisoned are disproportionately denied the protections and basic services that a democracy seeks to uphold. He ended his introduction by arguing, “To vote is to speak.” 

The debate centered around a series of questions. The first of which was, “Should you lose rights when you make bad decisions?” 

One side claimed that disenfranchisement is a part of punishment and that re-enfranchisement of inmates can incentivize politicians to be light on crime. The other side countered that disenfranchisement is a form of segregation, thereby undermining the criminal justice system’s claim to seek rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Demographically, they added, inmates represent large parts of our urban populations, so carceral disenfranchisement can inflate the votes of individuals who are statistically shown to reside in more rural areas of the country.

 “Should you work for your right to vote?”, one member of the debate team asked rhetorically, which prompted another to reply, “Is voting a privilege or a right?” Both sides agreed, however, that the language of “privilege” overwhelmingly classifies prisoners as non-citizens, seizing their right to vote, and their right to speak.

The evening, which was full of raw conversation and introspection, ended with yet another question that attendees would carry with them when they left the event: “How fundamental do we think voting is and should be?”

Kiana Taghavi is a junior at Columbia University, studying Political Science and French. She is passionate about criminal justice reform, and hopes to pursue a career in public interest law, fighting for the needs and rights of all members in our communities.

Photo by Kiana Taghavi.