Unless you have been living under a rock for the last year and a half you will be aware that tomorrow is the US presidential election. Much focus has been placed on demographics and trying to predict how different sections of society will vote come election day. But one of the many groups prohibited from voting in all American elections is convicted felons, a group that today is estimated to be 6 million strong. Not all states disenfranchise convicted felons but the vast majority do restrict prisoners’ rights to vote and in my opinion this should be overturned.
According to section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, the United States government has the right to disenfranchise people “for participation in rebellion, or other crime”, but also specifies that this is under the purview of the states. This provision of the Constitution has allowed states across the country to prevent people from voting if they have been convicted of a (somewhat) serious crime. In my opinion, however, this is incorrect on the grounds of justice, especially because of the definition of the term ‘felon’, and on the grounds of rationality, in regards to prisoner rehabilitation.
Firstly, a felon in the US is someone who is convicted of what is deemed by society as a serious crime, whereas misdemeanours are less serious; for example murder is a felony, and vandalism is a misdemeanour. These examples are easy to classify the problem arises because of the War on Drugs. In states with more liberal drug laws possession can be treated as no more serious than getting a speeding ticket, but in states with more strict anti-drug laws possession can be a felony. This creates a situation where a murderer and drug user are both disenfranchised for the same reason. I personally fail to see how someone should be denied the right to vote because they were once imprisoned for having LSD in their car.
However, my second point is that serious felons and people remaining in prison should also be allowed to vote. Why? There are a few reasons but the first is that engaging in the democratic process is educational. Indeed prisoners are uniquely able to learn about politics because they have quite a lot of free time. Education is a method of rehabilitation but also a way of changing people’s behaviour.
For instance, if prisoners are allowed to vote those who are getting out of prison in the near future may decide that it’s in their interest to learn about politics. A convicted felon scheduled for release two months after an election may decided whilst in prison that they want to vote for someone who will boost the number of job opportunities for convicts. The knowledge of a prosperous society beyond the walls of a prison would discourage them from causing trouble.
A related aspect is education in a reflective sense. When we engage in political conversations with people, we have to constantly think about what we are saying, how to argue our case, and whether these beliefs are compatible with our morals and ideals. Political discussions, whether basic civics or normative studies of ideology, require us to reflect on our morals and actions. Rehabilitation of prisoners can only occur if the person who is incarcerated understands the logic underpinning society, and politics allows people to do this.
However my argument also goes so far as to say that people who are serving life sentences, who are mentally competent, should be allowed to vote as well. The reason for this is because I am personally concerned about the state taking away people’s human rights. I would argue that the punitive aspect of prison is the deprivation of liberty, not that upon becoming a prisoner one is no longer classified as human with the rights that that allows.
Up until now I’ve basically made the case for why people in prison should be allowed to vote, but people who have been released from prison and have criminal records are also often disenfranchised. For me this is a pretty open and shut case. Even if you disagree with me on prisoners voting, people who were convicted of crimes and have paid their debt to society should no longer be prevented from expressing their views. These people are citizens just as much as anyone else, and in a democracy citizenship should permit people to cast their ballots. Further, voting gives people the idea of having a stake in society, and this would nurture a feeling in ex-convicts that would reduce recidivism.
The real world consequences of this Draconian set of laws is profound. In the upcoming presidential election one of the key swing states, and which many analysts believe may tip the election one way or the other, is Florida. Florida prevents people from voting if they are: in prison; on parole; on probation; and/or after leaving prison. Essentially, if you are convicted of a felony in Florida you will never vote again, unless you move to a different state.
In the 2012 elections, which included a presidential election, 5.85 million felons from across the US were denied the right to vote. Florida alone was the home of around 1.5 million of these people. If these 1.5 million people were allowed to vote, the states 29 electoral votes may not have gone for President Obama. Granted the election wasn’t tight enough for this to have made a difference to the overall result, but in an election that went down to the wire (like the one tomorrow might be) 1.5 million more voters in such a crucial state may change the course of US history.
If we continue looking at this in an electoral context, we can see that states that have laws just as long as Florida include other swing states like Iowa, Nevada, Virginia, and Arizona. Only Maine and Vermont have no restrictions on prisoners or ex-convicts from voting, which means that 48 states have some form of restriction.
People want to feel punitive when it comes to prisoners because they often dehumanise them, and as such disenfranchisement makes sense in the minds of these people. My argument is that it is better for society in the long run to allow prisoners and ex-cons to vote. Not only would it be an educational activity that gives these people a stake in a society that most will eventually rejoin, but it encourages a way of thinking that prevents re-offending. The right to vote was hard won by very brave people and to lose that right requires serious justification, which I do not believe exists.