Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Should convicted felons have the right to vote?

Posted by sanityinjection on March 4, 2009

This is an interesting opinion piece by Erika Wood arguing for federal legislation to overturn laws in 35 states that bar convicted felons from voting, even after they have served their sentences and returned to the community.

The column claims that more than 5 million Americans are prevented from voting by these laws. It also says that these laws were passed along with the poll taxes and literacy tests (since outlawed) that were designed to prevent African-Americans from voting, and argues that the laws disproportionately affect blacks today:

“Nationwide, 13 percent of African-American men have lost the right to vote. If current incarceration rates continue, three in 10 of the next generation of black men will lose the right to vote at some point in their lives.”

Of course, I would argue that if African-Americans are being disproportionately affected, it’s because they are disproportionately committing felonies, and that should be the focus of our concern. So I have to reject Ms. Wood’s attempt to make this a racial justice issue.

I am more interested in the main question of whether a felon who completes his sentence should be barred for life from voting. I certainly support barring felons from voting while they are still in prison. But if a person has spent 15 or 20 years as a law-abiding citizen after serving their time, what goal is being served by denying them the franchise?

Perhaps a compromise would be appropriate. A federal law could say that states can only ban felons from voting for a fixed number of years after their release, up to a maximum of, say, 15 years. Within that limit each state can decide for itself what the appropriate period, if any, should be.

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15 Responses to “Should convicted felons have the right to vote?”

  1. Jason said

    I admit the compromise you proposed is thought provoking. I still say no though. I would most likely be against allowing them to vote. But, I’d like to hear more or read more details about the 15-year window and the states decide on a review. Doesn’t sound terribly bad.

  2. Vergil Keynes said

    Though this issue is certainly interesting, I’m not sure why the federal government needs to get involved at all. Generally, more local levels of government are both more efficient and more alert to its constituent’s wishes than higher levels of government, so anything that can be decided at the state or even municipal level should stay there. Determining voter eligibility, especially in state elections, should be something for the states themselves to decide.
    As for suffrage for convicted felons, once they’ve served their time I see little reason to deprive them of the right to vote, especially since the goal, presumably, is for them to reintegrate into society smoothly – not easy when one of our most basic rights is denied.

  3. sanityinjection said

    Vergil – In principle, I agree with you. The problem is that leaving voter eligibility up to the states totally failed to safeguard the right of African-Americans to vote in the last century, until the federal government got involved. Conservatives like Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act on precisely this type of principled grounds. While I can certainly respect their reasoning, I think in that instance hindsight suggests their position was the wrong one.

    Now, I am not suggesting that the plight of former felons rises to the same level as that of black Americans under Jim Crow. What I am suggesting is that there is both precedent and rationale for a federal role in protecting the voting rights of a group that is being systematically discriminated against (assuming we decide that is the case.) It was with the states’ rights principle in mind that I put forth my compromise idea, rather than having the federal government force all states to comply to an identical arbitrary policy.

  4. Sister Benedict said

    Chuck Colson, a disbarred attorney of Watergate scandal infamy, has for several years been serving as the head of a Christian ministry called “Prison Fellowship”.

    Prison Fellowship is fantastically effective at preventing recidivism and at helping felons prepare themselves for life in society again. Most prisons welcome Prisnn Fellowship volunteers because of the impact made among the prison population.

    Because of Colson’s actions with this ministry and the because of the time he spent in prison and his upstanding citizenship since that time, most folks would agree that he has redeemed himself in the eyes of society.

    Colson was once asked if he wanted to work on a movement to create a federal law to permit former felons to vote. With his high profile and charisma and intelligence, he would be a great spokesman for the movement.

    Colson declined. He explained (and I paraphrase poorly) that he believed he forever surrendered the right to vote. He views voting as a privilege he rightly lost when he committed his crimes. He said that even if he were permitted to vote, he would decline to do so.

    Just something to consider.

  5. Vergil Keynes said

    Sanityinjection – the question, then, is whether the end justifies the means. I say it does not. If the government does not have the requisite authority to do something, then it shouldn’t do it. In this case, Washington has no more right to interfere with voting laws in the states than it does to interfere with voting laws in Italy.

    Also, who gets to decide which issues warrant the national government’s intervention? This is not merely being argumentative, as I’m sure you can see why issuing Congress a carte blanche to decide the bounds of its own authority may be a dangerous move.

  6. sanityinjection said

    Vergil – You are a true believer. I salute you, but I feel that you are doomed to a series of disappointments. Life, unfortunately, does not come in black and white, but in messy shades of gray. During the Civil War, Lincoln violated the Constitution many times, for example in suspending the writ of habeas corpus. So yes, it does come down to a judgement call on which issues warrant the national government’s intervention. I am not necessarily saying that this is one of them, though.

    Oh, and by the way, Washington *wrote* the voting laws in Italy – during the postwar occupation.

  7. sanityinjection said

    Sister Benedict – Colson is a flagellant and the statement you reference is just another example of his self-flagellation. He used to think he was above other people, now he thinks he’s beneath them. It’s just the flip side of the same psyche, though it’s nice that other people are benefiting from his work. What he can’t do is just see himself as a regular human being.

  8. Aw said

    How about the issue of taxation with out repsentaion There expected to pay state local & fed taxes that they have no say in how much or how there spent! Thats aganist the the very idea America was founded on! So they can’t vote but they can be a senitor and many are!

  9. Mark said

    The right to vote is not some thing that is given by anyone..it’s not alienable; not transferable to another or capable of being repudiated..it’s in the constitution. Look, if a person’s felony is drug possession under the current system (except for Maine and Vermont) they lose the right to vote out those who oppose drug law reform, so the people most effected by the legislature has no say in its makeup. That is just flat out wrong..how can anyone argue otherwise.

  10. Mark – Freedom of association is also a fundamental right, yet we do not allow prisoners to wander free out of concern of violating that right – in fact, we use solitary confinement to enforce order. And we put released prisoners on parole that restricts where they can go and what they can do. Do you believe that is unconstitutional? The Founding Fathers did not intend for us to take leave of our senses in understanding our rights. Nor did they believe that it was impossible for individuals through their own conduct to forfeit some of their rights.

    It is certainly legitimate to argue whether drug possession should be a felony, but that would seem to be a separate question.

    • Mark said

      I used drug laws as an example and maybe it’s a poor one because it’s such a hot button topic and my point may have been lost.

      We don’t allow certain felons free movement because of public safety concerns, they may pose an imminent threat to those around them. I do think this is sensible. Also some felons may be released early because of prison overcrowding, and this serves the public by limiting expenses and keeping more dangerous felons off the street, although this is debatable. Point is it seems that keeping a felon off the streets in certain instances may protect the individual rights the people that need to co-exist with these felons.

      To take away any individual’s right to participate in the political process doesn’t serve anyone… How could it? What are we afraid of? I am of the opinion that every citizen of this country should have the right to participate in the forming of the laws and governance of the state and country they live in, felon or not.

      • Thanks for clarifying, that’s a much more nuanced point than I thought. You could apply the same argument to insist that minors should have the right to vote as well.

        Also, consider that the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, yet convicted felons are not allowed to own guns. Perhaps that is an injustice that should also be corrected?

        I’m not necessarily saying you are wrong, but I am suggesting that the issue is a bit more complicated than you’re making it out to be.

      • Mark said

        I think denying felon’s the right to bear arms falls under the same category as limiting their movements (we touched on this earlier) in some instances. This is meant to protect the public from physical or emotional harm.

        As far as children voting sometimes I feel my interests would be best served if they could vote..government provided Ice Cream anyone? But we can also assume that a child’s parent (in most cases) is voting in their best interest until they can make their voice heard. I certainly do for my children, of which I have 3. Who’s representing felons?

        Look, I’m not felon fan #1 but at the same time I believe that in a government “for the people by the people” the People’s right to vote comes before anything applied/imposed by that government..A democratic goverment is formed as a result of votes not the other way around.

  11. This is another potential case of the Federal Government abusing its power! It has no business forcing states to allow chronic sex offenders and murderers to vote.

    Elections laws are for the states to decide, except for what is mandated in the amendments(i.e. race, gender, and age).

    Also, why should the Federal Government interfere with the local School Board elections?

  12. Jack Doe said

    I used to be a good asset to a particular billion dollar plus company, a highly productive citizen who paid his share of income, property, and other taxes every year. Other than a mortgage, I had no other liabilities.

    Today, I am totally unproductive, a drain upon society as a convicted felon. I am no longer to able to be productive as I have been hobbled by a criminal record and can no longer obtain employment in my field and honestly, I don’t have the will to work for crumbs.

    I’m sure that there are hundreds of thousands like me, who have learned their lesson, paid their debt to society, and want a fresh start. Current law makes this impossible.

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