The question of felony disenfranchisement is in the news again. Depending on what state you’re in, if you commit a certain class of crime, you may be prohibited from voting even after you serve your time, sometimes for the rest of your life.
I won’t go into the particulars of the specific question in the news, because, as is so often the case, the really interesting part is how the law plays out in the life of actual people.
If you had asked me in the past, I’d probably have said that it only seems fair. I would have said that if you don’t want to play by the rules, then you shouldn’t get to be involved in any part of the process of making the rules; and that’s what voting is, I would have said: Getting to choose who makes the rules. That’s what it means to live in a democracy.
I think differently now, about a lot of things. Specifically about felony disenfranchisement, I began to change my mind when I heard a man tell his personal story. He said that when he emerged from prison after a long sentence for a felonious crime, he was a different man.
What he had done in the heat and foolishness of youth, he regretted every day of his life since then. It was right and just that he be punished; he accepted this. But when he emerged from prison in an election year, everyone around him was busily making plans and arguing and getting involved . . . and he was out.
It wasn’t just that this was unpleasant. It struck him to the heart. He felt that he was being placed outside the realm of human activity, and it changed how he thought of himself as a human. He was being told that no one expected him to act like a regular citizen. And so he didn’t. He began to fall back into petty crime, mugging and robbing and fighting.
A complex story, to be sure. No one thing is ever to blame for the actions of a human being with free will. But I was struck in a brand new way by how wounded was his sense of self by being excluded from this right, and how directly his sense of self affected his sense of self as part of the community. If you’re not part of a group, why should you act as if you are? You’d look like a fool.
There was a law that said he didn’t have a stake who represented him, and he took that to heart, and began once again to treat his fellow man as if they were not connected — and everyone suffered. He took it personally, and he acted out personally.
And in a way, it was reasonable to do so, because living in a community is a personal thing, which means that being made to feel like you’re not part of the community is also a personal thing.
These past few months, the daily news has been an absolute firehose of larger-than-life events. Topics of life and death importance; issues that strike at the very heart of what it means to be a citizen, a Christian, a human.
When I sit down to write, I am overwhelmed with helplessness at what one can possibly say, when everything that’s going on is so huge. And at the same time, the misunderstandings and dishonest discourse about these issues have also been huge, and hugely alienating.
People do not wish to understand each other; they only wish to rule over each other. And as someone who doesn’t wish to triumph or be triumphed over, I feel like I have nothing to say.
I have been feeling alienated from my own country, from my own democratic process, in a way that feels disastrous, like something I can’t recover from. I feel like huge machines are whirling away at their processes entirely without me. I feel like I don’t recognize the place anymore. I’m not literally disenfranchised; I can vote. But I’m having a hard time feeling like I should.
I don’t even feel like I can talk to anybody about important things, because the vast, violent processes of American politics are excluding me so definitively.
But there was one night when I didn’t feel that way…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.