(Host) Many Americans have had more than enough political phone calls, door-to-door visits and mailings. But a small group of Vermont voters has been virtually ignored by candidates and pollsters alike: prison inmates. In many states, if you’re in jail or have committed a felony, you lose your right to vote – in some states permanently. But as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, Vermont not only allows prison inmates and convicted felons to vote, they can also run for office.
(Keck) Remember Grass Roots Party candidate Billy Greer? Four years ago the South Burlington man ran for the U.S. Senate from jail. He lost to Jim Jeffords. But Greer, who was serving a 27-year sentence for conspiracy to import and export hashish and marijuana, did manage to get nearly 5,000 votes.
Fluke? Not in Vermont. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz says back in 1798, Matthew Lyon, a publisher from Fair Haven, was thrown into prison for printing articles that attacked President John Adams.
(Markowitz) “He was a congressman from Vermont and he was convicted for criticizing the president under the Alien and Sedition Act. He was in jail during his reelection campaign and he won reelection from jail. He was very popular and there was a strong feeling that you should be able to criticize the president and that law was changed.”
(Keck) Markowitz says Vermont has a long tradition of supporting rebels and underdogs dating back to the revolution and the Green Mountain Boys.
(Markowitz) “The Allen brothers were themselves considered criminals. They didn’t want anyone telling them what they could or couldn’t do. And so it’s not surprising that part of our history is that hey, if you commit a felony that’s one thing, but we’re not going to take away your citizenship.”
(Keck) Jason Davis is a soft-spoken 25-year-old who’s serving time at the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland. He’s not running for any office but says he is planning to vote.
(Davis) “I think it’s important because our opinion matters just as much as anyone else’s. A lot of people wouldn’t say that, but I believe it is.”
(Keck) Fellow inmate James Wood agrees.
(Wood) “I’ve never voted before, but I registered this year.”
(Keck) “Are you excited?”
(Wood) “Yeah. It’s our country. If you vote, it’s your voice being heard and it’s your chance to put your two cents in to what goes into the government. A lot of people don’t think we can change anything, but if we all try, it’s definitely a step.”
(Keck) Any step a prisoner can take to become re-connected to the community is important, prison officials say, because it helps reduce recidivism. Tom Giffen is a casework supervisor at the Rutland prison.
(Giffen) “Society can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to say, we want inmates to be rehabilitated, but yet 48 states say, we want you back but you can’t vote. What is that message telling people?”
(Keck) Not all Vermonters are comfortable allowing prison inmates to vote and run for office. In Springfield, local officials had been worried that if inmates registered to vote there, they’d outnumber the local residents and community issues like school budgets and who was elected to town offices might be affected. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz says it was a valid concern and lawmakers addressed it.
(Markowitz) “A law was passed to say that a person who goes into prison retains their residence for voting purposes where they lived before they went into prison. In the same way that if you go into a nursing home that is in a different town than the town that you are registered to vote, you can continue to vote in your local town.”
(Keck) That takes care of inmates who vote. But Markowitz says she also hears concerns raised about the criminal records of those running for office.
(Markowitz) “Just this past year we had a concern on the Board of Listers, there was someone who’d been convicted of a felony and it was a felony burglary. And the question was, is there a way to keep them from serving as lister? And under Vermont law you can run for office if you’re on the voter checklist and you can be on the voter checklist if you’re a felon.”
(Keck) Markowitz says convicted felons can also be elected as a town constable – and while the law prohibits such a person from carrying a weapon, they can be granted considerable authority in a community. That may trouble some people, but Markowitz says in Vermont, it’s felt that voters should have the final say.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland, Vermont.