Should Committing a Felony Always Result in Losing The Right to Vote?
What Right to Vote?
With another election year upon us, most US citizens take for granted their right to vote. They carefully weigh the candidates and cast their ballots accordingly, with little pause as to their legal entitlement to do so. But, what if you are one of the 5.3 million Americans who are denied the opportunity to be counted due to a past felony conviction, even after paying your debt to society? Felony disenfranchisement laws have been upheld to be constitutional (Richardson v Ramirez), with the Court finding an "affirmative sanction" of the practice of felony disenfranchisement in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.
States have enacted their own laws regarding felony disenfranchisement. Currently, four states (IA, FL, VA, KY) allow permanent disenfranchisement for all convicted felons, unless the government approves individual rights restoration. Seven states (AL, AZ, DE, MS, NV, TN, WY) allow permanent disenfranchisement for at least some people with criminal convictions, unless government approves individual rights restoration. In nineteen states (AK, AR, GA, ID, KS, LA, MD, MN, MO, NE, NJ, NM, NC, OK, SC, TX, WA, WV, WI) voting rights are restored upon completion of sentence, including prison, parole, and probation. In five states (CA, CO, CT, NY, SD) voting rights are restored automatically after release from prison and discharge from parole, and probationers may vote. Voting rights are restored automatically after release from prison in fourteen states (DC, HI, IL, IN, MA, MI, MT, NH, ND, OH, OR, PA, RI UT). Only Maine and Vermont do not disenfranchise people with criminal convictions, allowing felons to vote from prison.
The United States prison system is disproportionately overcrowded with minorities. In 2009, Blacks account for 39% of the prison population, yet they represent only 13% of the US population (US Bureau of Justice Statistics). As a result, felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects black minorities more than other races. But, reform movements of felony disenfranchisement laws are growing. Since 1997, disenfranchisement reforms have resulted in over 800,000 convicted felons regaining the right to vote. In a 2010 report released by The Sentencing Project, a research and reform advocacy group, nine states have either repealed or amended permanent disenfranchisement laws, three states expanded voting rights to include persons under community supervision, and eight states have made it easier to restore voting rights for persons who have completed sentences.
Some argue that those who violate the social contract by committing serious crimes against fellow citizens should not be allowed to participate in self-government. But, if our government is of the people, by the people, for the people, shouldn't felons be able to claim a right to the process, just as any other person? Or, do felons cease to be people? We all know that our forefathers weren't exactly on the money when they drafted our Constitution. The same Section of the 14th Amendment that currently sanctions denying criminals the right to participate in the voting process denied women the right to vote. Women's suffrage was finally granted in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Blacks were given the right to vote in 1870, but even after this law was passed blacks were denied participation in elections based on poverty and criminal history.
Voting Makes Better Citizens
Released felons that have completed their sentences and are returning to society are faced with an especially daunting feat ahead. Most leave prison with the desire never to return, but face an uphill challenge when it comes to rebuilding their lives as honest citizens. Securing viable employment with a felony conviction automatically disqualifies them from certain career paths. Those who made an honest living in the medical or educational fields prior to being convicted can never return to their specialties. And most employers in fields that involve money handling, children, or entering people's homes won't hire ex-felons for fear of liability. This limits the convict's job prospects drastically, leaving mostly menial, low-paying service jobs. Those who desire to learn a new trade may face disqualification from government educational grants and financial aid in some cases. Honest ex-offenders with intentions of living productive lives must work harder to become success stories. These roadblocks often leave ex-offenders feeling hopeless and disconnected from mainstream society. This is often the precipitating factor in recidivism rates.
In 2009, there were over 2.6 million people behind bars (US Census), Most of these were incarcerated for drug offenses, but many were there for minor offenses. Think about the 19 year old prankster who stole a stop sign. Should they be permanently barred from the voting process because of a mistake they made in their youth? Thousands of felons are released from prisons annually. Don't we, as a civilized society, need to ensure these people can successfully contribute and reform once they are freed? We want them to become educated, work, pay taxes, and participate in their communities. What better way to promote civil responsibility than to restore these people their right to vote? Voting helps ex-felons to rebuild a sense of civic duty and social belongingness. Voting strengthens democracy and helps establish ownership of government. Isn't it time we let go of an ancient mindset that looked for excuses to deny a segment of the population a voice?