Should felons have the right to vote?
While some say rescinding voting rights is a fair penalty for those who have committed heinous crimes, a recent legislative trend shows more states have become in favor of reinstating felons' right to vote.
Rise of the Issue
As of 2020, around 5.2 million Americans did not have the right to vote because of a prior felony conviction. In Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, more than 8 percent of the population that is of voting age is disenfranchised. Voting while still in prison is currently allowed in two states – Vermont and Maine – and Washington DC.
Several states have enacted new laws over the past few years to (automatically) restore voting rights for felons once they are released from prison. Voting rights are not taken away during probation or parole, or due to outstanding fees, in 22 states. At least five states require payment of fines and fees before felons can have their voting rights restored. In more than twenty others, felons cannot vote if they are still on probation or parole and not paying fines or fees can extend their probation or parole.
While some argue this puts a price tag on the right to vote, the Supreme Court deems it lawful. Just before the election in 2020, Florida passed a law requiring felons to pay all court fees and debts before having their voting rights restored, which was upheld by the Supreme Court.
Kentucky Law Prevents Felons from Voting
As the first state to create so-called ‘felony disenfranchisement’ laws, Kentucky takes away the right to vote from people who were convicted of ‘bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors’.
1868 - 1870
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment are Adopted
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution granted citizenship rights and equal protection under the law to all, including (the descendants of) formerly enslaved people and the Fifteenth Amendment grants all people, regardless of race, the right to vote.
Supreme Court Upholds Felony Disenfranchisement
In the important case of Richardson v Ramirez, the Supreme Court decides that preventing felons from voting is not unconstitutional, because the Fourteenth Amendment says certain rights can be taken away for ‘participation in rebellion, or other crime’.
Senate Prevents Felons Voting in Federal Elections
The Senate votes against an amendment that is intended to grant people with felony convictions the right to vote in federal elections.
Supreme Court Allows Limits on Felon Voting
Just before the 2020 presidential election, Florida passes a law that says people who have been convicted of a felony must pay any outstanding court debts and fees before they can vote. The federal court rules that this is unlawful, but the governor appeals and the Supreme Court upholds the law.
Universal Right to Vote
Supporters of ending felony disenfranchisement say that the right to vote is a fundamental right that should be awarded to all citizens. Their opponents argue that there are already restrictions on voting such as age, mental stability, and place of residence, so committing serious crimes justifies having certain rights taken away.
Reintegration into Society
While one side worries that barring felons from exercising their right to vote and participating in the political process prevents them from reintegrating society, the other side says that felons gave up their right to be part of that society when they broke its rules.
Supporters say these laws disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and purposely attempt to exclude them from the political process, while opponents negate that these laws stem from discriminatory practices.
The right to vote is a fundamental human right.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘the will of the people shall be the basis for government’ and everyone should have the right to vote in periodic, genuine elections.
Restoring voting rights facilitates reintegration into the community.
Allowing people to have a say in how a country or community is governed, makes them feel like their voices are being heard. The more they feel like they are a part of the community, the less likely they are to reoffend.
Restoring voting rights for felons fights racial inequality.
In recent years, black people have been imprisoned over 5 times the rate of white people, and Latinos have been imprisoned 2.5 times as much as white people. They are more likely to face felony disenfranchisement, due to their overrepresentation in felony convictions.
Felony disenfranchisement is tied to poverty.
Over half the states directly or indirectly tie restoration of the right to vote after a felony conviction to paying fines or fees – meaning only convicted felons with enough money can get their voting rights back.
Taking away the right to vote is not a proportionate punishment.
Taking away the right to vote applies to all felonies, regardless of how serious they are, making it inherently disproportionate.
The Constitution allows for exceptions for criminals.
The Fourteenth Amendment grants citizenship rights to all without discrimination, but it also says an exception can be made for those who participate in ‘rebellion or other crime.’
Convicted felons are more likely to break the law again.
The United States has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world – over 75% of released felons are rearrested within five years. Some argue that giving them voting rights back automatically would therefore be a mistake.
Restoring voting rights for convicted felons dilutes the votes of law-abiding citizens.
Some believe that having been convicted of a felony shows poor judgment, and feel uneasy at the thought of felons’ votes having the same weight as other citizens.
Committing a felony should have serious consequences.
Punishments are intended to punish for and deter people from committing crimes, and taking away the right to vote is a serious consequence to consider.
Felons make for a considerable voting block in some jurisdictions.
In some areas, the percentage of felons that have their voting rights restored amounts to a considerable number of potential votes and can have consequences on election results.