This is the third installment in Walter Mosley’s cycle of essays on Cultural Famine. The other installments appeared in the October 23 and December 18 issues. –The Editors
The word suffrage has nothing to do with the verb to suffer, or so my Oxford dictionary tells me. But the poet in me sees a connection. Voting is a serious enterprise. My choices of who speaks for me, decisions about laws that govern me and parties that represent my interests are the most important activities in my sociopolitical life. My ability to understand and make choices in the political arena is therefore paramount for me and my country. And if I fail to choose correctly or, even worse, neglect to participate in this enterprise, a whole nation, maybe an entire world, will suffer.
All Americans should vote. Every last one of us who is eligible should enter that ballot booth and punch out our choices.
Who should be eligible? Every living, breathing citizen of this land regardless of race, gender, intelligence or criminal history.
Millions of convicted felons across the nation, once they have served their sentence, find they are not allowed to participate in the electoral process–the fact of their conviction barring them from the very act that defines our national identity and our citizenship. This is possibly a worse sentence than the one they have already served. If a woman cannot vote, if a man cannot cast his ballot, they are being punished again for a crime they have already paid for. And the punishment is the abrogation of their nationality. Not only are these ex-convicts punished but the whole nation suffers, as we are deprived of the participation of our full citizenry.
And there’s another problem: The penal system in the United States is both racist and classist. Staggering numbers of our convicts are illiterate, from impoverished backgrounds and of color. Many thousands more are severely mentally ill or afflicted with learning disabilities or retardation. It’s not that other classes of people don’t commit crimes; it’s that they don’t get convicted at the same rates as those who cannot afford adequate legal representation. Poverty, more than any other cause, fills our prisons with potentially productive and positive citizens.
Citizens. It doesn’t matter what crime you’ve committed; if you are a citizen of this nation, then you will continue to be one. No matter if you kite checks, get into bar brawls, murder for hire or tunnel into banks. It doesn’t matter if you have carried an illegal weapon or even committed some heinous crime against children or the elderly. No matter what you’ve done you are still a citizen, and as a citizen you have certain inalienable rights. And the most important of those rights is the franchise to vote.