On Ash Wednesday, Catholics and many others will walk around with ashen crosses (or, by the end of the day, what look like indeterminate smudges) on our foreheads. Those ashes are strong symbols of core principles of the Catholic faith — symbols of repentance, identity, reconciliation, and renewal of baptism in the faith.
As a voting rights lawyer who is about as passionate about my work as I am about my faith, I can’t help but see parallels between the moral guidance I am given by my faith, and the policy choices that confront us in the secular world. These principles are reflected in the way we worship – and also in the actions we take in the secular world. This has led me and others to the conclusion that the 4 million Americans who lost their voting rights while incarcerated, and now live in our communities, deserve the chance to vote again upon release. It is both the just and the moral thing to do.
As we approach Ash Wednesday during this Holy Season, I encourage all Christians, guided by their core beliefs, to consider this idea.
Repentance suggests regret for a wrongful act, and attempting to make restitution for a wrong. By voting, a person with a criminal conviction is able to demonstrate that he cares about his community and the laws and political leaders that affect its well-being. Someone formerly incarcerated because of the commission of an anti-social act, would, by voting upon their release, now engage in decidedly pro-social behavior.
Identity comes from the reminder by the ashen cross that our body is merely dust and to dust it shall return. We must identify with all the parts of ourselves that are so much bigger than our corruptible bodies, namely, as souls known and loved by God with all those attendant responsibilities to ourselves and others. When a person is released from prison, our hope should be for that person to identify themselves as a citizen with responsibilities like every other citizen living and working in the community. The people in this country willing to cast a ballot are members of a select and special group of Americans who understand the importance of civic participation and are willing to make sacrifices to help guide our nation. Allowing people with criminal convictions to identify as part of this select and special group of Americans will help keep them on a path of righteousness.
Reconciliation means restoring oneself as a member of the body of Christ and ending estrangement from the teachings of God. Incarcerated persons are the ultimate outsider — they are banished, frequently far from their homes and loved ones, to live apart from the rest of us. When they are released, they can return to their communities as the prodigal son or as the stranger. In either case, we as Christians are called to welcome them. Restoring voting rights to people upon their release from prison is a strong and tangible statement we as a country can make: namely, that we want and expect reconciliation from our fellow citizens with whom we have been estranged.
Renewal means to make new. The lord who turned water into wine, cured those afflicted by leprosy, and raised people from the dead can easily burnish a tarnished person and give them new life. A person who has been released from prison also has a chance at a renewed life. And in that new life, one should develop the habit of voting as it reinforces other moral values. As the great civil rights historian Taylor Branch frequently comments, the vote is a piece of non-violence — it is a peaceful way to resolve our political disagreements. Voting teaches patience and the value of engaging in a shared endeavor. Voting also teaches the importance of doing something even if the benefits to you are attenuated.
As we begin this Holy Season, let us remember to practice the tenets of our faith in all aspects of our lives — the moral, personal, and political. To me, this means supporting policies that strengthen our ties to the “least of” our fellow citizens as we strengthen our ties to God and his Son. There are many laudable ways to do this, but by restoring voting rights to people with criminal convictions upon release from prison, we have a concrete way to set these citizens — our brothers and sisters — toward a path to success and positive re-entry, as opposed to making them second-class citizens without a voice in our democracy.
Myrna Pérez serves as Senior Counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.