Disenfranchisement is the revocation of a person’s right to vote. Many states in the U.S. practice this action when a person commits a felony and is justly convicted in the judicial system. Even when their sentence is served in full, their past actions do not allow them to cast a ballot for any reason.
Some states allow for the franchise to be restored once specific conditions are met, such as serving a sentence and not being arrested for another crime. This action allows a felon to vote in local, county, and state elections. The federal government does not allow someone with a felony to vote in a national-level election, even if their conviction was for a state crime.
Vermont and Maine allow prison inmates and individuals on probation, along with parolees, an opportunity to vote in elections. There are 21 states allowing a person convicted of a felony to vote after they complete their sentence. Virginal permanently disenfranchises anyone with a felony conviction, although Governor Terry McAuliffe used an executive order in 2016 to restore the voting rights of 140,000 people.
List of the Pros of Felon Voting Rights
1. Franchising completes the act of reformation for a convict.
When people finish their sentences and return to society, we let them have their right to pursue a life they want back. That means they can get married, have children, own property, and obtain a driver’s license. You can buy alcohol if you want, although guns are usually off-limits. You don’t lose your freedom of religion or abandon the right against self-incrimination. If we don’t trust people with a felony to make an appropriate decision at the ballot box, then we’re communicating to people that we think they cannot change their lives.
As Steve Chapman from the Chicago Tribune put this thought in 2006, “if we thought criminals could never be reformed, we wouldn’t let them out of prison in the first place.”
2. Disenfranchisement is supported by the Fourteenth Amendment.
The ability to restrict the voting rights of felons is expressly included in the text of the Fourteenth Amendment. Supporters of this interpretation include Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the United States. In a dissent offered in the 2006 decision of Farrakhan v. State of Washington, Mr. Kozinski noted that this action is “presumptively constitutional.” Only a narrow subset of these laws, the ones enacted with racial discrimination in mind, are the ones that are unconstitutional in the United States.
3. It creates a deterrent against committing felony-level crimes.
Prison sentences are meant to serve as a punishment for decisions made. We impose jail time on people as a deterrent against the choice of breaking the law for personal gain. Custodial sentences always result in a loss of freedom. That means the democratic rights of the prisoner disappear for the duration of their sentence in most locations.
The primary reason for a prison sentence is that we show offenders and our entire society that these behaviors result in a loss of freedom. That also means you lose the rights that those freedoms afford, such as voting. Allowing people to vote despite their actions could create harm to the rest of society since their ballot counts the same, but individuals in jail don’t have the same stake in what happens afterward.
4. Allowing felons to vote creates social ties and a commitment to the common good.
When society allows felons the right to vote, then it is promoting legally responsible participation in civil society. This benefit occurs even if prisoners are behind bars when they cast a ballot as they can do in Maine or Vermont. It is an action that helps to strengthen their social ties to society while giving them an option to provide for the common good.
Proponents of restricting felon voting rights often say that this action is impractical or costly, by Professor Jeff Manza at Northwestern University says that such an approach is “ethically unjustifiable.” The fact that prisoners are losing many of their freedoms does not automatically imply that they should also lose all of their civil rights.
5. Social contracts must receive restoration to complete the rehabilitation process.
Most people won’t argue the point that a felony conviction is evidence that an individual wants to terminate their social contract with society. What we could say is that a person’s desire to serve their time appropriately, pay fines, and manage their legal responsibilities is evidence that the contract should be restored. Injured parties can certainly accept the decisions made by the justice system, but we cannot pick and choose the terms and rights that remain and what ones do not, especially after a debt has been repaid in its entirety.
Continuing to punish people because of their actions in the past fails to offer a satisfactory explanation as to why the right to vote is denied to so many.
6. Felons have a unique societal perspective to offer when voting.
A prisoner is not more or less rational than the average person who decides to cast a ballot in a local election. Split-ticket voting hit a new low in the 2018 governor and senate races in the United States, with more people deciding to vote for the same party no matter what the candidate stood for or represented. That kind of blind loyalty is just as problematic as a felon who may not have a complete awareness of the issues that are outside of their prison cell.
The reality of having a felon vote is that their unique perspective adds diversity to the conversation. Even if someone disagrees with their perspective, the information makes us stronger as a society.
List of the Cons of Felon Voting Rights
1. High recidivism rates show a lack of judgment in the felon population.
The reason why we don’t let children vote is fairly simple. We don’t trust them to understand the entire issue that is on the ballot. It’s the same reason why people with certain physical conditions, mental competency issues, or non-citizens are not given this right. The question that we need to ask ourselves is this: do felons belong in this category?
Most people would say that they do because their decision-making processes led them to the choice to commit a felony in the first place. Critics of the idea of giving felons voting rights would say that committing a serious crime shows that the individual is not trustworthy.
2. The justice system has nothing to do with racial inequality.
When the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals looked at Florida’s historical record on making felons wait for a minimum of five years before having their voting rights restored, they came to a basic conclusion. The judges rejected the notion that the original motivation for the laws involved racial discrimination. One could argue that the laws on the books apply to everyone, no matter what your skin color, family history, or personal identity happens to be. You choose to commit a crime.
3. Automatic restoration doesn’t mean voter registration occurs.
The history of disenfranchisement in the United States has created societal “knowledge” that a felony conviction causes someone to lose their right to vote. That isn’t the case in every state, because there are 16 where you receive automatic restoration upon release. Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated felons to vote. When you receive that right back, the restoration process doesn’t mean that you are automatically registered to cast a ballot in the next election.
Individuals are responsible for re-registering themselves to vote through the regular process once they have the right to do so. Some states, such as California, try to avoid this disadvantage by requiring registration information to be given to people formerly incarcerated. When 150,000 ex-felons had their voting rights restored in Florida between 2007-2011, only 21% of then registered and voted.
4. Disenfranchisement goes against the Eight Amendment.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive sanctions being placed on a person’s criminal conduct. It demands that the punishment for a crime should be proportioned to the offense using a graduated method. States that continue to exclude felons from being able to vote are the outliers in this situation, in the U.S. and the rest of the world, because it creates a lifetime consequence for what could be a minor crime – even if it is a felony.
When we review the most common felony crimes that take place in the United States, there are numerous non-violent incidents that occur. Public drunkenness, selling alcohol to minors, and violating curfew or loitering laws can all reach this status.
5. Disenfranchisement laws are a throwback to slavery.
After the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction led many states to use disenfranchisement laws as a way to strip the voting rights from people newly freed from the slave trade. The impact of these actions is an issue that still faces our modern communities of minorities in a disproportionate manner. There are 2.2 million African-Americans in the United States banned from voting because there is a felony conviction on their record. That means about 1 in 13 adults cannot cast a ballot.
If you were to look at the three states where this issue is the worst, which are Virginia, Florida, and Kentucky, then that ratio climbs to 1 in 5 people. Providing felons with voting rights would allow us to modernize the legal system to reflect our current society.
6. The time a felon serves is not the only consequence of their actions.
Many states allow felons to begin voting once again when they have finished their sentences in prison. Some states, such as Washington, believe that the entire consequence must be resolved before a complete restoration occurs. Many people who receive a felony conviction are also ordered to pay criminal penalties, legal fees, and victim’s restitution as part of their rehabilitation process. Instead of separating out the various sentencing aspects of each incident, we should have these individuals wholly restore everyone they’ve hurt before they receive the same favor in return.
7. A crime is committed against society – not just the individuals involved.
The social contract theory serves as the rationale for felon disenfranchisement because of how compelling an argument it creates. If someone commits a crime, then that action isn’t against their victim alone. It is an act that affects the entirety of society. Proponents of allowing felons to vote will often mention that an inability to do so can impact their ability to integrate into our communities, but it fails to explain why having that right in the first place didn’t stop the criminal conduct from happening.
8. The act of felon voting restoration would create a loyal voting bloc.
The political party that fights for and achieves felon enfranchisement would be able to count on having a massive voting bloc that would reliably vote for them in each election. Most prisons are in low-population rural areas, so offering the opportunity to cast a ballot could swing local elections. West Feliciana Parish in Louisiana is one of the best examples of this issue, where about 13,000 residents share space with 6,300 prisoners. If you have one-third of all potential voters in one spot, then local candidates are going to campaign at the facility instead of in the community.
The reality of allowing felons to vote is that the people who have already committed actions against society aren’t going to support the issues in the same way. Can you imagine a serial rapist voting to support women’s health and safety issues? Would a murderer fight for increased home safety laws?
The right to vote is a fundamental component of a democracy-style government. Those who support the idea of giving felon voting rights either during or after a sentence feel that this guarantee should apply to every citizen. Critics of this approach argue that individuals who engage in criminal conduct are voluntarily giving up those rights because they’ve proven to be dishonest or disreputable.
There is a primary driver of this conversation in the United States. When felons do have the right to vote, either in prison or after completing their sentence, most of them tend to vote for Democrats. That means conservative groups and Republicans tend to oppose these efforts.
The pros and cons of felon voting rights are swinging in the direction of allowing this action around the world. If the goal is to rehabilitate people so that their position in society is fully restored, then giving them the right to vote once they’ve paid their debt is the minimum of what we can do.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.