by Stephanie Singer, Philadelphia City Commissioner
When it comes to empowering the people, Pennsylvania election law is behind the curve in many ways. In Michigan voters can fire an elected official without waiting for his term to end — in Pennsylvania we can’t. In Colorado voters can force questions onto the ballot without passing through the State Legislature or any City Council — in Pennsylvania we can’t. It’s no accident that marijuana is legal now in Colorado — the people of Colorado wanted it, and they could make it happen because they didn’t have to jump through elected officials’ hoops. Colorado voters have the power in a way we Pennsylvanians don’t.
But in at least one way, Pennsylvania is ahead of the curve. In Pennsylvania, felons can vote once they’re released. Can you vote on probation? Yes! On parole? Yes! In prison for a misdemeanor or awaiting trial? Yes (by absentee ballot)!
Some people might argue that some crimes are so awful, that the people who committed them should lose their citizenship rights as just punishment. Maybe so, in rare cases. But we couldn’t call ourselves a democracy if we disenfranchised 30% of Philadelphia’s adult citizens — more than one in every four. That’s how many “ex-offender”, “previously convicted”, “returning citizens” live in Philadelphia. Almost 300,000.
Why should returning citizens vote? Power. To get a sense of the power of 300,000, consider this: every recent Mayor’s race has been won by less than 300,000 votes. (In fact, no single Mayor candidate, not even the winner, has even gotten 300,000 votes). So a unified bloc of 300,000 voters could determine the next mayor. And the bar is much lower for local judges. A bloc of 40,000 voters could hire a new judge, or fire a sitting judge in a “retention election.”
What about the 70% of us without a criminal record? Why might we want to encourage our returning neighbors to vote? Research suggests that civic engagement, such as voting, reduces recidivism. In other words, voting and community involvement help create the kinds of ties and opportunities that keep people from returning to prison, which saves money for all of us.
I have often heard people complain about “the system.” There is certainly plenty to complain about — huge injustices, wasted opportunities and wasted lives. But it is a mistake to think that disengaging is an acceptable response. The only way to change the system is to engage with it. The worst nightmare of the corrupt insiders who are taking advantage of the system is that the People will actually start using the power of democracy, the power of the vote, to insist on government for the People.
Philadelphia needs every Philadelphian to vote. Every vote cast in Philadelphia is a vote for Philadelphia itself, giving our representatives in Harrisburg more clout to negotiate for the resources Philadelphia so desperately needs — for schools, for job training, job creation and social services. We need our returning citizens. We need their voices and their votes.