According to a 2004 study, former prisoners who vote are half as likely to reoffend. If suffrage constitutes even a small nudge toward the straight and narrow, why shouldn't we grant prisoners the right to vote? As things now stand, criminal-voting laws vary widely by state: in some, a first-time drug offender will be denied the right to vote for life; in others, murderers can vote while behind bars. But overall, America's position on voting rights, particularly with regard to former criminals, is the most punitive of any developed nation.
Half of European countries allow all current inmates to vote, and virtually all former inmates in Europe have full voting rights. American attitudes are more in line with the European approach: 80 percent of Americans support enfranchising all ex-felons, while 60 percent support letting probationers and parolees vote.
Voting-rights opponents often argue that criminals are too morally corrupt to be trusted with the vote. In a recently released anthology, Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective, McGill University political-science professor Christopher Manfredi quotes John Rawls, who wrote that a "just constitution" is dependent on "citizens and legislators ... exercising good judgment in applying the principles of justice." He goes on to argue that those who have broken laws lack such judgment, and that democracies are therefore within their rights to exclude criminals from voting. This line of argument is popular: only a third of Americans support voting rights for current inmates.
But determining moral depravity is harder than it sounds. And it's hard to see how implementing a form of civic death helps former inmates reintegrate into society. Even if one grants that certain morally challenged offenders -- murderers, say -- do not belong in the voting booth, surely we could have judges determine who is fit to vote on a case-by-case basis, rather than excluding all criminals in the blanket laws of state constitutions.
Some supporters of prisoner suffrage believe that voting is a constitutional right. The quintupling of the U.S. prison population since 1960 means that 5.3 million Americans, and roughly 13 percent of African American men, are disenfranchised. Some inmates have filed suits alleging that certain state voting laws constitute "purposeful racial discrimination," which is prohibited by the Voting Rights Act. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was recently entangled in such a case. This concern with discrimination does have some historical backing; during the Jim Crow era, in order to deny blacks the vote, disenfranchisement laws were tailored to crimes that African Americans committed in greater numbers than whites.
The criminal-voting debate tends to split along party lines. Republican opponents of enfranchisement often note that an estimated 70 percent of felons and ex-felons would be Democratic voters, an unsurprising number given the demographics of the prison population. In fact, it's been argued that Al Gore would have won Florida, and the election, in 2000 with the ex-felon vote -- a controversy that made ex-felon voting rights a topic of national conversation.
But citizens should be denied basic rights only when a clear threat is posed to the public good -- not simply for reasons of political calculus. In recognition of that, even some Republican governors have relaxed disenfranchisement laws in their states, as Bobby Jindal and Charlie Crist have done in Louisiana and Florida, and as George W. Bush did in the 1990s in Texas.
Crime costs this country an estimated $1.4 trillion annually. Unless disenfranchisement helps reduce that number -- and the evidence suggests that it does the opposite -- then denying prisoners the vote in order to minutely heighten the virtue of the voting pool is a bad trade.