This November people all over the United States will cast their ballots in the name of democracy. However, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 6.1 million Americans will not be afforded this right due to their felony convictions. I am a convicted felon in state prison in California, yet I still have my right to vote—but only because I am a citizen of Sweden. The right to vote is fundamental in a modern democracy, and should always be respected, regardless of whether a person is in jail, prison, on parole, or on probation.
Sweden is known for being a global equal-rights leader, and voting rights are no exception. Every fourth year on the second Sunday in September, Swedes head out to vote for their chosen candidates. There are four types of general elections in Sweden; Rikdsdagen (parliament), landstingsfullmaktige (state), kommunfullmaktige (municipal), and Europaparlamentet (European parliament). Swedes who are registered in Svenska Kyrkan (Church of Sweden) are also able to cast their vote in the church election.
Every person over the age of 18 who is a registered citizen of Sweden has the legal right to vote in Swedish elections, and that right also extends to prisoners in Sweden as well as to Swedes imprisoned abroad. Not only am I fortunate enough to vote, but the Swedish consulate always makes an effort to send me the voting ballots for the Swedish election way ahead of time, so that I am not excluded from my country’s democratic process by accident. So far I have voted twice in Swedish elections while incarcerated in California.
America prides itself on being the world’s leading democracy. As a foreign prisoner residing in California, I respectfully disagree. The right to vote is a fundamental democratic value and should not be lost as a result of a felony conviction.
Opponents of felon re-enfranchisement may argue that the electoral system is based on a society’s collective sense of respect for the law, citizenship, and democratic processes—that felons don’t share that respect and should thus forfeit their voting rights . My experience as a Swede and the experience of Americans in a growing number of states shows just how wrong they are.
Maine and Vermont are trailblazers on the issue of felon voting rights in America. They currently do not disenfranchise people with criminal convictions for any amount of time, regardless of whether they are in prison or on parole. I believe that if America wants to become a real democracy, the only solution is for the remaining states to follow that path. If the true aim of rehabilitation is to restore a felon so that he or she can be a law-abiding and productive citizen, then felons must regain and retain their right to vote. The opposite view is rooted in American’s history of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow laws.
Though I have committed a horrible crime, my right to be heard is still respected in Sweden. Being able to participate in the Swedish elections gives me a sense of hope for the future and a feeling of belonging to my society. It is time for America to live up to its image of itself and extend citizens with felony convictions the same sense of investment in their country’s future.