Vermont, Maine only states to let inmates vote
RUTLAND, Vt.—The prison inmates had to think for a moment when Missy Shea of the Vermont Secretary of State's office asked them to name the only crime that would prevent an incarcerated person from voting in the state.
"Murder," answered one of the men gathered in the library of the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility. Others guessed treason or domestic assault.
"You're all going to have really good answers, but you're not going to get it," Shea said during a voter registration session at the jail earlier this month. "Election fraud."
No one in Vermont can remember the last time anyone was convicted of election fraud, making it and Maine the only two states that allow all inmates to vote. Officials in both states say interest in voting in the presidential election is up among prisoners as Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain campaign for the White House.
"We do have a fair number of prisoners who are doing it," said Jeffrey Merrill, warden at the maximum-security Maine State Prison in Warren.
One of the Marble Valley inmates who registered to vote and requested an absentee ballot -- inmates in Vermont and Maine are residents of the towns where they resided at the time of their incarceration -- was Elliot Russell, 31, of Bennington, who is serving an eight-month sentence for aggravated assault.
"A lot of guys feel, being in jail, we get treated beneath other people when in fact we can be treated as equals," Russell said. "I'm glad I get to vote now. You couldn't do it in New York, but I'm going to do it out here."
Vermont's 1793 Constitution states under what conditions a resident loses the right to vote: "Any elector who shall receive any gift or reward for the elector's vote, in meat, drink, moneys or otherwise, shall forfeit the right to elect." That's been interpreted to narrow the loss of voting rights to voter fraud alone.
"Vermont has taken the position the more we can get folks in prison involved in the community in a responsible way, the better their chances of reintroducing them to the civilian world in a responsible way," Secretary of State Deb Markowitz said.
Nationally, states began restricting felons' rights to vote in the early years of the 19th century, said Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard University historian and author of "The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States."
In most states, people incarcerated on misdemeanor convictions can vote, Keyssar said. In some other states, there are circumstances that allow some felons to vote.
"The rationale for disfranchisement has never been particularly compelling or clear," Keyssar said.
One reason for restricting the right to vote is retribution, to punish a felon for violating the norms of society, while another is to protect the purity of the ballot box, he said.
"There is zero evidence that somebody who robs a gas station is more likely to violate the purity of the ballot box," he said. "The linkage between crimes and election crimes just isn't there."
In the 1790s the Vermont Legislature tried to outlaw inmate voting, but it was overruled in 1799 by the Council of Censors, a now-defunct fourth branch of government that met every seven years to decide constitutional questions, said Montpelier attorney Paul Gillies.
The most recent effort to outlaw prison voting in Vermont came in the early 1980s. The office of then-Secretary of State Jim Douglas -- he is now governor -- trotted out the 1799 precedent and quashed the idea, said Gillies, who served as Douglas' deputy secretary of state.
"It's really an abomination that felons are allowed to vote," said Rob Roper, the chairman of the Vermont Republican Party. "Who are they going to vote for? The people who are going to spend more money on prisons and who are going to let them out early so they can commit more crimes?"
No one tracks how many Vermont inmates cast ballots. Groups have conducted registration drives at some prisons.
Several years ago, the nonprofit group Vermont Protection and Advocacy received a grant to help people with disabilities register to vote. The group has worked with disabled inmates as well as those without disabilities, said advocate Tina Wood.
This fall, Wood registered 73 inmates at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport and has been working in other facilities, too.
"I've seen a huge increase in the number of inmates who wanted to vote over two years ago or four years ago," Wood said.
Earlier this year in Maine, the NAACP conducted a voter registration drive of inmates, which drew about 200 participants.
While Vermont inmates can vote, political activity inside prisons is forbidden.
"It's our job to facilitate," said Carol Collea, an attorney for the Department of Corrections, "but not to campaign."