SPECIAL IDEAS REPORT

Idea of the DayThursday, June 18, 2009

Let Criminals Vote

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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.

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Comments (6)

"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."

"Only when a CLEAR threat" is a gratuitous assertion. I don't know what political philosophy you are using to establish this sweeping declaration. The fact is, that if a people think cons represent a history of making bad decisions, that's enough of a reason to revoke their right to vote. Actually, there are all sorts of arguable reasons to restrict peoples' right to vote. I could make an argument that the weight of people's votes should depend on the percentage of their income that goes to taxes.

Anyway, both sides of the aisle are advocating for the right of cons to vote or not based on political calculus. Democrats want to let them vote (and illegal immigrants too) because they think they will benefit from it. Inverse for Republicans. This question is only an issue because of political calculus, and it will be enacted or not based on political calculus.

crimfan (Replying to: James GW)

You could indeed make an argument "that the weight of people's votes should depend on the percentage of their income that goes to taxes" though I suspect you meant not percentage but amount as the poor tend to pay much higher taxes as a percentage if you look across all taxes, just not income tax. This basic argument has been made many many times before, perhaps most eloquently by 19th Century reactionary Joseph de Maistre. There's a nice book on the topic of franchise restrictions to preserve elite privilege: Robert J. Goldstein, Political Repression in 19th Century Europe, Routledge, 2009 (1983).

Imagine you made a mistake in your past, you went to prison. You come out ready to make an honest change, be a good citizen, and make a positive contribution to society. Then you start to run into some snags.

1. You've got a criminal record, so no one wants to give you a job.

2. You probably have little formal education or vocational training. You've had no income, so you can't afford an education, and you don't qualify for federal aid (because you are a felon).

3. You can't vote, so you can't lobby your interests.

If we don't give them any options, how can we expect these individuals not to recidivate? They still have the same needs as everyone else.
Secondly, by providing them with services, we decrease crime and other social costs, which in turn, will benefit everyone. The bottom line is that there is no good reason to prohibit any citizen from voting.

I am all for reconsidering disenfranchisement of convicted persons. However, I am skeptical that having the right to vote will actually contribute to lowering recidivism rates. You quote a studying showing that prisoners who vote are half as likely to reoffend. That doesn't mean it is a causal relationship; it may just mean that the ex-offenders likely to vote are also the people more committed to a successful transition.

I work with this population and I can tell you that, at least in the vital 2-3 years after release, what is on their mind is not voting. It is finding a job, education, heath care, transportation, etc. I guess if you allow prisoner to vote they might get used to doing it while incarcerated.

I wholeheartedly agree that the more we welcome this population back into our communities, the less likely they will reoffend; perhaps voting is one gesture that will help. But until we start lending a helping hand and assisting them to earn and acquire their basic needs, we will always have a serious recidivism problem in the U.S.

You mention felons voting in Europe. In Canada, too, felons vote.

The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that:

"the government offered no credible theory about why it should be allowed to deny a fundamental democratic right as a form of state punishment. Denying the right to vote does not comply with the requirements for legitimate punishment — namely, that punishment must not be arbitrary and must serve a valid criminal law purpose. Absence of arbitrariness requires that punishment be tailored to the acts and circumstances of the individual offender. Section 51(e) qua punishment bears little relation to the offender’s particular crime. As to a legitimate penal purpose, neither the record nor common sense supports the claim that disenfranchisement deters crime or rehabilitates criminals. By imposing a blanket punishment on all penitentiary inmates regardless of the particular crimes they committed, the harm they caused, or the normative character of their conduct, s. 51(e) does not meet the requirements of denunciatory, retributive punishment, and is not rationally connected to the government’s stated goal."

http://scc.lexum.umontreal.ca/en/2002/2002scc68/2002scc68.html

Patrick Appel

JEC01 writes:

I am skeptical that having the right to vote will actually contribute to lowering recidivism rates. You quote a studying showing that prisoners who vote are half as likely to reoffend. That doesn't mean it is a causal relationship; it may just mean that the ex-offenders likely to vote are also the people more committed to a successful transition.

I understand that correlation doesn't equal causation. But even if you are right that having the right to vote won't lower recidivism rates, the fact that ex-felons who vote are less likely to re-offend neuters the argument that we are going to see a wave of morally dubious voters should we grant greater voting rights to felons and ex-felons. I've seen turnout numbers for ex-offenders estimated in the single digits.

I don't expect voting rights to make a huge difference and agree that there are bigger problems (a first-time conviction has huge economic consequences because few employers want to hire ex-felons), but I've seen no evidence suggesting that voting rights would increase recidivism rates and what little evidence there is points in the other direction. It would be great to have more research on this question. James GW argues:

[B]oth sides of the aisle are advocating for the right of cons to vote or not based on political calculus. Democrats want to let them vote (and illegal immigrants too) because they think they will benefit from it. Inverse for Republicans. This question is only an issue because of political calculus, and it will be enacted or not based on political calculus.

This point holds some truth. But whether letting felons and ex-felons vote is a societal good is an empirical question, not a political one. Punishment should always pass a cost-benefit analysis –a point hammered home in Mark Kleiman's fantastic forthcoming book, When Brute Force Fails. While reforms in the dozen states that have relaxed their voting laws since 1998 were mostly lead by Democrats, there have been instances of bi-partisan cooperation. Why did George W. Bush relax the law in Texas if this issue is decided purely on partisan grounds?

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