As millions of people across the country are getting ready for the 2022 midterm elections, a resurgence of advocates are working to make sure voting rights are restored to the millions of Americans who are disenfranchised by Jim Crow-era policies. In every election since 2004, over 5 million Americans have been disenfranchised by state laws that prevent people with felony convictions from voting. Even more people are disenfranchised because of confusion around eligibility laws which vary by state and often are misinterpreted even by government officials. At the same time,voter intimidation is growing in America – as exemplified by the selective and wrongful prosecutions of largely Black and Brown voters with felony records by Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida.
Recent polling from Stand Up America and their partners shows that the majority of voters (56%) believe voting should be a guaranteed right for all. Specifically, voters supported full restoration of voting rights to all citizens over the age of 18, including those completing a sentence, both inside and outside of prison. However, our polling also showed that many people don’t know about voting laws in their states. In fact, 34% of voters said they don’t know if citizens in their state who are incarcerated can vote.
By covering this movement and the impact of these policies, reporters can better inform readers and highlight policy solutions. But it’s crucial that they do so in a way that uses people-centered language and doesn’t further stigmatize justice-impacted individuals. If your news organization decides to cover voting rights restoration and voting rights, please consider the advice below.
The following recommendations are from Stand Up America and The Sentencing Project, building on recommendations from the National Institutes of Health, The Fortune Society, and the Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing
|When talking about people who are currently incarcerated, use person-centered language such as person or individual impacted by the justice system, justice-impacted individual, or people who are incarcerated.||Don’t use terms such as inmate, felon, criminal, or convict. Too often, these words are used in headlines and stories that create dehumanizing labels, stereotypes and marginalize people. Justice-impacted individuals aren’t defined by their conviction history – and the language used to describe them should acknowledge their full identities.|
|When talking about people who have previously experienced incarceration, use person-centered language such as person or individual with prior justice system involvement, person or individual on parole, person or individual on probation, people who are formerly incarcerated, people with felony convictions.||Don’t use terms such as ex-offender, ex-prisoner, parolee, probationer, detainee.|
|Use language that doesn’t make an assumption about someone’s future by their identities. Examples include high-risk behavior or disproportionately impacted.||Avoid using terms such as high(er)-risk group to indicate someone’s likelihood to be impacted by the justice system.|
|Use clear language about the initiatives to restore voting rights such such as voting rights restoration or guaranteeing the freedom to vote for all.||Avoid using universal suffrage when talking about initiatives to restore voting rights for justice-impacted individuals. The term can be confusing for readers, as some may associate it with women’s suffrage or compulsory voting.|
|Use language to show the complexity and diversity of justice impacted individuals and their communities – especially when talking about how voting rights restoration would support them. |
Example: The justice system impacts each person, family, and community differently. Justice-impacted individuals are fighting to vote to have a choice in their kid’s curriculum, their parents health care, and their communities safety.
|Avoid using language that groups every justice impacted person as the same. Justice impacted individuals have unique backgrounds and can’t be viewed as homogenous.|
|Always acknowledge the systems that contribute to mass incarceration and disenfranchisement in America. |
Example: Disenfranchisement in America isn’t an accident. It’s a product of white supremacy and a hangover product from slavery. Black and Brown Americans are disproportionately impacted by the justice system and the only two states that have never disenfranchised people are the whitest states in the union.
|Avoid talking about voting rights restoration in a vacuum.|
|Use clear language that differentiates the voting rights of people in jails versus prisons.|
Example: People being held pre-trial in jail have the right to vote. People serving sentences in Illinois prisons do not have the right to vote. The right to vote is restored immediately upon release from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
|Don’t use “jail” and “prison” interchangeably when referring to correctional institutions. |
Jails are typically short-term holding facilities for the newly arrested, those awaiting trial or sentencing, and those serving misdemeanor sentences under one year. They are under local jurisdiction. The vast majority of people in jail have the right vote.
Prisons are under the jurisdiction (run by) of the state or the federal government. People who have been convicted and are serving longer sentences are sent to prison. In most states, people in prison cannot vote.
Voting rights restoration is shown to promote public safety by allowing justice impacted individuals a stake in their community and the ability to make their own decisions about their community. However, right now, every jurisdiction but Maine, Vermont, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C. still has laws on the books that restrict citizens’ freedom to vote if they are convicted of a felony. What’s more appalling, is that three out of four people who are disenfranchised by these laws have completed their prison sentence and are back home in their communities, where they raise families, work jobs, and pay taxes—just like every other American. Many others are still incarcerated with children back home who are denied a voice because their loved ones have lost their freedom to vote.
Stand Up America has helped pass voting rights restoration legislation in New York and Connecticut. Stand Up America’s members have driven more than 6,000 constituent emails and calls to fight for voting rights restoration across the country. Since 2019, Colorado, New Jersey, Nevada, California, Iowa, Washington, Washington D.C, New York, and Connecticut have all made strides to restore voting rights to justice impacted individuals. This legislative session, Stand Up America’s members will continue to advocate for voting rights restoration legislation at the state level across the country.
More information on the importance of voting rights restoration is available here.
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About Stand Up America
Stand Up America is a progressive advocacy organization with over two million community members across the country. Focused on grassroots advocacy to stand up to corruption and voter suppression and build a more representative democracy, Stand Up America has driven over 1.7 million calls to lawmakers, registered over 100,000 voters, mobilized thousands of protestors, and contacted tens of millions of voters.
Chicago Votes is a non-partisan, non-profit organization working at the intersection of activism, education, and politics in order to make democracy more inclusive, just, and accessible. We’re engaging and developing a new generation of leaders by opening the doors of government and politics to young people from all corners of the city. Chicago Votes has helped pass seven state laws, including Voting in Jails and Civics in Prison.