When one is convicted of a felony, it turns out that the silver bracelets snapped around their wrists not only restrain them physically, but also handcuff them from casting ballots in the voting booth — a norm that is anti-democratic, racist in effect, tyrannical in logic and in contention with our nation’s purported ideals.
Forty-eight states currently have laws that restrict convicted felons from voting, and the laws vary state-by-state in terms of how long they affect those convicted. For example, Ohio only bans current inmates from voting, while Mississippi disenfranchises inmates, parolees, probationers and all ex-felons not currently under state-supervision.
Though they vary in degree of how long they bar citizens from the voting booth, they are all anti-democratic and unjust — and collectively affect a great deal of citizens. According to the Sentencing Project, as of 2010, about 5.8 million people in America were unable to vote because of a current or previous felony conviction, which translates to roughly three percent of the voting age population.
Furthermore, these laws disproportionately affect black people. As of 2010, one in every 13 black person of voting age was disenfranchised, a rate that nearly quadruples the amount of white people affected. Unfortunately, that’s no surprise: these laws are just an outgrowth of a racist “criminal justice” system. And though fairness and equality will only become manifest after a systemic overhaul, we shouldn’t overlook the system’s far-reaching consequences, nor should we smite chances for practical reforms.
One of the central justifications for disenfranchising felons is that they have demonstrated a lack of moral or ethical judgment in committing a crime, and, thus, should not be able to exercise that inferior judgment in a way that influences society. But if we should take this communally consequential action, why not strip them of the ability to make other decisions that also bear influence on surrounding citizens? And where do we stop? Why not make it illegal for them to purchase alcohol? To own a business? To reproduce? Indeed, this line of thinking is quite dangerous — tyrannical, even.
While dangerous in and of itself, this argumentation stems from a broader “Other”-ing of criminals. From the time they are handcuffed, draped in striped uniforms and thrown into a cage, there is a stigma projected upon them that paints them as less than human. Rather than understanding criminals as complicated human beings — human beings that made mistakes that we ourselves are capable of making — we understand them as inherently compromised — dangerous and morally inferior.
And by stripping them of their right to vote, we are only trying to further rid ourselves of them. They ought not only stay out of our sight, tucked away in a cell, but they also ought not play a role in determining our future as a collective community, so the logic goes.
But this line of thinking is ill-founded, for despite our resilience in pushing them to the furthest margins of society, those who have broken the law are indeed still part of our community. Evidenced in the list of communally consequential activities — having kids, owning businesses, etc. — that they continue to partake in, they still play a part in creating the world we live in. They should thus have an institutionalized role in governing it.
This is not to excuse or apologize for the crimes that have been committed. Nor is it to narrowly define democratic participation as merely voting. Nonetheless, voting is not a privilege, but a right — a right that should be retained by all of those that make up our community.
Thus, Congress should pass a constitutional amendment that guarantees everyone the right to vote — and, more profoundly, we should also stop seeing those convicted of crimes as “others.” This would, of course, only mean furthering our nation’s life-long project of actualizing our motto — “e pluribus unum.”