With elections less than two weeks away, those running for local, state and national office are busy trying to win over as many votes as possible. But there's a small group of voters in the northeastern United States that's virtually ignored by candidates and pollsters alike. Vermont and Maine are the only two states in the country that allow prison inmates, even those who've committed serious crimes, to vote. This small bit of civic duty has big meaning for many men and women living on the margins of society.
The Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland, Vermont, houses about 150 men. Their crimes vary from disorderly conduct and petty theft, to rape and murder. And while they're cut off from most aspects of society, they are able to do something inmates in most other states cannot vote.
"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," says Jason Davis, a soft-spoken 25-year-old who will be voting for the first time in November. He says taking part in the election makes him feel more connected to the community. "Yeah - and I would say it's a sense of freedom. It gives you an idea of what's going on, on the outside," he says.
"A lot of us are here because we make our one mistake and we're doing our time, but we're still people. We should still have the right to vote," says Vermonter James Wood, who is 24 and has been in prison for a year. "I've never voted before, but I registered this year," he says. "...If you vote, it's your voice being heard you know? 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."
Helping inmates take the steps necessary to become re-connected once they're free is important, prison officials say, because it lessens the chance that they'll become a repeat offender. Tom Giffen supervises caseworkers at the Rutland prison. "Society can't have it both ways," he says. "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?"
But critics counter that someone who has broken the law should not be allowed the privilege of helping craft new law. Massachusetts, for example, used to allow all inmates even felons - to vote. But four years ago, lawmakers amended the Commonwealth's constitution to take that right away from convicted felons who are still serving their sentence.
Vermont's Tom Giffen says that's a shame. "Society now seems to want more retribution and less rehabilitation it seems like. You're seeing longer sentences, which is fine, but it's very expensive to keep people in jail and I would think that rehabilitation would be more important and being part of a community," he says. "That's the bottom line. Most people in jail are going to get out. Wouldn't you like them to come out better than they came in?"
Not all Vermonters are comfortable allowing prison inmates to vote. In one small town where a large prison recently opened, local officials were worried that if inmates registered to vote in that particular community, they'd outnumber town residents and community issues like school budgets and who was selected as town officers might be affected.
According to Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Vermont lawmakers agreed. "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," she says.
Vermont officials are proud that the state has one of the highest voter turnouts in the country. Deb Markowitz says the idea of allowing someone in jail to vote, or even run for office, dates back to 1798. That's when Vermonters re-elected Matthew Lyon, a popular U.S. Congressman who was himself a convicted felon. "He was convicted for criticizing the President under the Alien and Sedition Act and was in jail. 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," says Ms. Markowitz.
If taking part in politics can change a law, Deb Markowitz and other proponents of Vermont's inclusive voting policy believe it might just help change a person as well. Twenty-four year old James Wood would like to think so. "To me, I feel like this has been my one mistake, you know what I mean? I'm trying to change my whole life and I figure I should start somewhere, at least register to vote, I haven't done that before, it's a step to the good. And I don't plan on coming back," he says.
For the roughly 2,000 prison inmates in Vermont, November 2 will give them a rare opportunity to add their voices to those on the other side of the prison wall.