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Rethinking the Dimensions of Citizenship

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brandi Blessett
June 3, 2016 

Definitions and perceptions of citizenship and community have evolved over time. In the United States, our most basic understanding of citizenship is rooted in the founding documents. The Declaration of Independence proclaims,

“…all men are created equal that they be endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Subsequently, Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states,

“The citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.”

BBDespite such proclamations, the U.S. government has never fully afforded indigenous and nonwhite populations with the espoused rights and privileges of citizenship. As a result, the concept of citizenship produces a different reality for different groups of people. Preuss argued, “Essentially citizenship means a status of duties, rights and yes, also privileges (with respect to non-citizens) for individuals who as citizens constitute a political community.” This political community represents the decisionmakers, the authority figures and those persons responsible for steering the direction of their local communities, and the country as whole.

In the United States, the franchise (right to vote) is a fundamental component of society whereby the motto ‘one person, one vote’ essentially characterizes American democracy. However, in recent years, growing factions of the population are being alienated from the benefits of citizenship (e.g., serving on juries, carrying a firearm, voting) based on their status as a returning citizen. (For clarification, returning citizen refers to people who were formerly incarcerated and are attempting to reintegrate back into society after their sentence has been completed.)

Mass incarceration is an issue that has significant implications for individuals, families, communities and society at-large. One cannot begin to understand the impact of felon disenfranchisement without an acknowledgement of the disproportionate effect mass incarceration is having on American citizens, particularly low-income persons of color. The Sentencing Project estimates 5.8 million people are ineligible to vote based on a felony conviction. In Florida, upward of 1.5 million people are disenfranchised; 23.3 percent of the people impacted are identified as African-American. Based on the sheer number of persons, rights restoration has been deemed “the major civil rights struggle” of the new millennium.

Rights restoration is a process by which formerly incarcerated persons regain the right to vote. The process of restoring a person’s voting rights varies across states. In Maine and Vermont, there are no restrictions to accessing the ballot, while 12 states including Florida, Alabama and Virginia enforce restrictions while people are in prison, on parole or probation and/or post-sentence. The quilt of disenfranchisement represents a hodgepodge of policies that are often justified as protecting the sanctity of the franchise. However, research has revealed that voter fraud is almost nonexistent and restricting formerly incarcerated persons from accessing the ballot is counterproductive to helping them become productive citizens.

Access to the ballot is fundamental to American citizenship. When large factions of the population are systematically being denied the right to vote, the legitimacy of democracy comes into question. Subsequently, the racial disparity is staggering and the implication for returning citizens, their families and communities is astounding. Put simply: communities of color are being locked out of opportunities to productively and effectively engage in the governing of the society they live and work.

While disenfranchisement is difficult to grasp for individuals directly impacted, research has shown that governments across the country have also had trouble interpreting, implementing and administering disenfranchisement laws fairly and consistently. For example, Ewald identified several issues that impacted the effective implementation of disenfranchisement laws, including but not limited to: broad variation and misunderstanding in interpretation and enforcement of voting laws, confusing policies leading to the exclusion of legal voters and the inclusion of illegal voters, and recognition that disenfranchisement results in contradictory policies within states. Furthermore, Ewald estimates, “More than one-third (37 percent) of local officials interviewed in 10 states either described their state’s fundamental eligibility law incorrectly or stated they did not know a central aspect of the law.” As public administrators, such outcomes are the antithesis of professional standards within a democratic society.

The ways in which disenfranchisement policies are being implemented greatly impacts the sanctity of American democracy. Rights restoration is just one aspect of a larger problem. Individuals, families and communities are becoming part of an undercaste that exists in the margins of society. In this regard, second-class citizenship is equated with concentrated poverty, segregated neighborhoods, inadequate educational opportunities, proximity to crime and violence and unsatisfactory health outcomes.

Disenfranchisement has been a long-standing practice and people are not better off by being stigmatized as outcasts. In fact, Hull argues that re-enfranchisement might encourage rehabilitation because,

“…respect for the law and the legal system may well depend, on some measure, on his ability to participate in the system. Moreover…the loss of citizenship rights [including] the right to vote…inhibits reformative efforts. If corrections is to reintegrate the offender into free society, the offender must retain all attributes of citizenship.” 

Therefore, if the United States ever wants to truly live up to its ideals, rethinking dimensions of citizenship has to be a top priority moving forward.

Author: Brandi Blessett is an assistant professor in the department of public policy and administration at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research broadly focuses on issues of social justice. Her areas of study include cultural competency, social equity, administrative responsibility and disenfranchisement. She can be reached at [email protected].

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