The Case Against Blanket Felon Disenfranchisement
Americans proudly tell foreigners that their country grants everyone the right to the franchise, but in doing so they leave out a not so minor detail — nearly 6 million American adults can’t vote due to prior felony convictions.
In 18 states, felons lose their voting rights while incarcerated. In 19, felons are disenfranchised for some time after their prison sentence, and are often required to pay outstanding fines, fees or restitution before their rights can be restored. And in 11 states, felons are permanently disenfranchised. Revoking voting rights from an entire group of individuals solely based on their common status as felons is not only misguided, but is fundamentally at odds with American ideals of democracy and equality. That’s why it’s about time to put our money where our mouth is as a country and end blanket felon disenfranchisement.
First, felon disenfranchisement is harmful to democracy because it skews electoral outcomes, moving us away from democratic legitimacy. A 2002 study by Uggen and Manza found that "Democratic candidates would have received about 7 out of every 10 votes cast by the felons and ex-felons in 14 of the last 15 US Senate election years” (Uggen and Manza). When examining how these figures would have affected elections, the researchers found that seven Senate races might have been flipped from 1970 to 1998. In a country that preaches universal suffrage and claims that democracy is a pillar of our values, it is highly hypocritical to enact voting restrictions that undermine the will of the people (Lopez-Guerra).
Moreover, felon disenfranchisement contradicts the American ideal of equality because it disproportionately impacts minority communities. Today, one in thirteen Black Americans can’t vote today due to prior felony convictions, a rate four times greater than that of non-African Americans. In this sense, felon disenfranchisement can be seen as an extension of voting restrictions such as literacy tests and poll taxes that were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 196: it merely adds barriers to voting for racial minorities, carrying on the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery.
With an imperfect criminal justice system, felon disenfranchisement leaves many Americans who have paid their dues to society — or who have not broken society’s contract in the first place — without a voice. America has a mass incarceration problem which disproportionately impacts people of color: we imprison more of our people than any other country in the world, and our prison population has risen over 800% since the 1980s (ACLU). Many of the people locked inside of this imperfect system have committed, for example, minor drug offenses. A recent study found that 15% of state prisoners had been convicted of a drug offense as their most serious infraction (Human Rights Watch). But this blanket felon disenfranchisement that many states practice does not distinguish between crimes. For instance, someone who kills multiple people and receives a life sentence receives the same civic punishment — the loss of the franchise — as a teenager who sells drugs to a friend one time. Both are considered felonies by many states, and both would result in the loss of voting privileges for the rest of these individuals’ lives. Whether or not we agree on what crimes should be classified as misdemeanors or felonies, it seems fair to conclude that punishing a group of people who have committed crimes of such different magnitudes through the same consequence in their civic life is at odds with the American ideals of fairness and equity. Why are we so willing to strip away a basic right through applying a “one-size fits all approach” to punishing a vast range of offenses?
This is a mistake, especially when that punishment is something as important as voting. Americans deeply value voting; an overwhelming 91% say that they consider the right to vote as essential to their own personal sense of freedom (Pew Research Center). That’s because voting is a pillar of citizenship — one that gives individuals a voice and fair representation in a democratic society. It is not something that should be taken away lightly. Several states’ current laws around felon disenfranchisement apply an “all or nothing'' consequence — permanent disenfranchisement — in an arena where we are dealing with fundamental rights under our constitution, and that is immensely dangerous. If felons remain citizens, retain their civic status, and pay their dues to society through their sentences, why shouldn’t they enjoy the most basic of their civil rights?
Re-enfranchisement may also help felons behave in a way that is in line with democratic norms. Empirical research suggests that restoring voting rights can reduce recidivism and aid those who have committed crimes in reintegrating successfully into society. This is because when felons are able to vote, they can see themselves as legitimate participants in society — a self-perception “inconsistent with reoffending” (Leong). Moreover, voting empowers felons to engage with their communities and make their voices heard, helping them reintegrate into society and establish a sense of identity in the political landscape.
Finally, felon disenfranchisement fundamentally violates the “all-affected” principle of ethical reasoning, leaving ex-felons without a voice or fair representation in a state in which they are heavily impacted by the laws of the government (Song). Ex-felons are still subject to the laws and principles of the state after they have served their sentence, just like everyone else. In fact, they may actually be even more impacted by policy than the general public because of laws constructing prison regulations and dictating what access the formerly incarcerated have to housing, government assistance, and jobs. But unlike everyone else, they are unable to secure fair representation or use their voice to shape policy. Disenfranchising ex-felons is not unlike taxation without representation: it creates a class of people who are subject to the laws of the country, but who are without a say in the democratic process under which they are governed. Moreover, when laws are passed in regard to the prison system, it is vital that those who have experienced it firsthand have a say in shaping them.
Blanket felon disenfranchisement is not only unjust — it's dangerous for our democracy. It skews electoral outcomes, moving us away from democratic legitimacy, it targets racial minorities in a society in which we preach equality and unity, and it creates an underclass of Americans who are deeply impacted by the laws of the society but who are voiceless and barred from the most fundamental right of citizenship. As Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.” And if we’re going by this logic, prohibiting 6 million of our prisoners from the basic right of casting a ballot should probably be cause for concern.