Felon Disenfranchsement: Why Felons Deserve the Right to Vote

Felon Disenfranchisement: Why Felons Deserve the Right to Vote
Dori McDonough
West Virginia State University
Spring 2016


Abstract
Felon disenfranchisement, in regards to voting, effects several Americans in the United States. Felon disenfranchisement is when people are prohibited from voting due to being convicted of a felony. The purpose of this paper is to analyze felon disenfranchisement in regards to voting rights. First, I will review the history of felon disenfranchisement. Then, I will assess how felon disenfranchisement causes further racial disparities in the United States. Finally, I will justify why felons deserve the right to vote. I concluded and data suggested felon disenfranchisement causes more harm than good. Felon disenfranchisement affects all United States citizens, not just felons.


Felon Disenfranchisement: Why Felons Deserve the Right to Vote
     Felon disenfranchisement, in regards to voting, effects several Americans in the United States. Felon disenfranchisement is when people are prohibited from voting due to being convicted of a felony (Felony Disenfranchisement Law & Legal Definition, n.d.). These policies vary by state. Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote whether they are incarcerated, on parole, or on probation, unlike states like Virginia who only allows reinstatement of their voting privileges if they are pardoned by the governor (Preuhs, 2001).
     In the United States, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are restricted from voting due to being convicted of a felony. Approximately 2.6 million of those Americans have already completed their sentences and still are unable to vote. This also deeply effects African Americans in the United States. For every thirteen African Americans, one of them are unable to vote. This totals to an estimated 2.2 million African Americans unable to vote (Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer, 2015).
     The purpose of this paper is to analyze felon disenfranchisement in regards to voting rights. First, I will review the history of felon disenfranchisement. Then, I will assess how felon disenfranchisement causes further racial disparities in the United States. Finally, I will justify why felons deserve the right to vote.

Literature Review

     Several authors suggested that the right to vote is a basic and essential element in a democratic society (Arp & Morton, 2005; Cammett, 2012; Hoskins, 2014; Siegel, 2011).         One study suggests that felon disenfranchisement is a democratic crisis (Cammett, 2012). Another study proposes that ex-offenders should be entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else and that once all of the offenders’ punishment(s) have been completed that the offenders should have their rights reinstated (including the right to vote) (Hoskins, 2014). Furthermore, Siegel (2011) does not agree with felon disenfranchisement as a whole and suggests that reenfranchisement could actually impede on offenders’ rehabilitation and their reintegration into society.
       Research warns that further implementation of felon disenfranchisement laws may cause the electoral process to become further biased or corrupt, since a large number of minorities (i.e. African Americans and Latinos) are excluded (Arp & Morton, 2005; Bowers & Preuhs, 2009; Preuhs, 2001; Siegel, 2011; Stuart, 2004). Preuhs (2001) did not necessarily agree, but he suggests that felon disenfranchisement laws may decrease minorities’ participation during elections. Bowers and Preuhs (2009) suggests that felon disenfranchisement laws decrease political influence of minority groups that are more likely to be effected by felon disenfranchisement laws.

Discussion

Since the United States was founded, it has struggled with who should be allowed to vote (Grady, 2012). The United States decided that felons should not be allowed to vote. If someone were to glance at the history behind felon disenfranchisement, who felon disenfranchisement effects, and how felon disenfranchisement effects, they would see why felons deserve the right to vote.

Historical Review of Felon Disenfranchisement

     Felon disenfranchisement has a long history. The history can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans as a form of punishment (Arp & Morton, 2005). Taking away civil liberties and rights was considered punishment according to the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
     The colonists brought these ideas over to North America (Arp & Morton, 2005). The first state to impose felon disenfranchisement laws into their constitution was Kentucky, the fifteenth state to join the Union (Stuart, 2004). Therefore, these felon disenfranchisement laws were not written into constitutions until states started to join the original thirteen colonies.
     Once felon disenfranchisement came to the United States, it was used more as a loophole than a punishment. Southern states’ used crime and the criminal justice system to disenfranchise African American. Jim Crow Laws supporters used the clause in the Fourteenth Amendment “excepting abridgement based on participation in rebellion or crime” to deny African Americans the right to vote (Arp & Morton, 2005). Felon disenfranchisement was used as a method to strip rights away rights from African Americans rather than to punish criminals as a whole.
     Felon disenfranchisement was used to specifically target African Americans. When slavery ended, states began to enact Black Codes. These Black Codes were meant to control freed slaves by altering criminal codes into legislation so that they would specifically target African Americans (Cammett, 2012). For example, Alabama created a policy that made it a felony for someone to beat their wife (but not kill her) because Alabama policymakers believed that the policy would disenfranchise and eliminate sixty percent of African Americans from voting (Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer, 2015). This type of mindset and policymaking caused and causes racial disparities in the United States.

Causes Further Racial Disparities in the United States

     Felon disenfranchisement disproportionately effects the African American community. African Americans are extremely overrepresented within the criminal justice system (Siegel, 2011).  Therefore, African Americans are more likely to be effected by felon disenfranchisement more frequently and with greater severity since they are disproportionately arrested and convicted (Bowers & Preuhs, 2009).
     Voting-age African Americans are disenfranchised more than other races. Voting-age African Americans are four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population (Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer, 2015). Felon disenfranchisement does not have a positive effect on African Americans.
      The votes of African American felons alone could change or determine the outcome of many elections (Arp & Morton, 2005). In the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, Al Gore would have received more than the 538 votes needed to win the state of Florida and the presidency if disenfranchised African Americans in Florida alone were allowed to vote (Preuhs, 2001). Felon disenfranchisement causes an imbalanced representation of the voting-age African American population.

Why Felons Deserve the Right to Vote

            The United States is unique because the United States denies the right to vote from nonincarcerated felons. Many countries, including Ireland, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, and Australia, allow offenders to retain the right to vote even while incarcerated (Arp & Morton, 2005). In South Africa, Israel, and Canada, their courts have ruled that felon disenfranchisement or any other conviction-based voting restriction is unconstitutional (Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer, 2015).  In short, other countries do not agree with felon disenfranchisement.       
Felons, who have completed their sentences and paid their debt to society, are still having their voting rights taken away (Hoskins, 2014). There are 12 states that do not allow reenfranchisement even after completion of their prison sentence, parole, or probation; individuals in those states make up roughly 45 percent of the disenfranchised population (Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer, 2015). Therefore, 45 percent of disenfranchised felons have paid their debt to society and still are being punished.
            Felon disenfranchisement does not have an insignificant political impact. Data suggests that there have been at least seven Senate races from 1990 to 1998 and at least one presidential election that has been affected by felon disenfranchisement policies (Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer, 2015). Felon disenfranchisement affects the political process, can alter the outcome of elections, and ruin the values of the electoral college.
            Felon disenfranchisement affects offender rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Studies show that disenfranchisement may hinder offender rehabilitation by increasing feelings of alienation and stigmatization (Siegel, 2011). Voting right restrictions adds to the isolation of offenders from their communities. Civic participation has been associated with lower recidivism rates. Also, reenfranchisement could aid offenders’ transition back into community life (Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer, 2015).

Conclusion

      In this paper, I analyzed felon disenfranchisement in regards to voting rights. I reviewed the history of felon disenfranchisement, assessed how felon disenfranchisement causes further racial disparities in the United States, and justified why felons deserve the right to vote. I used history, facts, and statistical data to support my argument on why I think that felons should be re-enfranchised.
     There are some strengths of this paper. One being that every source or reference I found supported reenfranchisement of felons. There was also a lot of information about how felon disenfranchisement effected minorities, especially African Americans. This was useful in assessment of how felon disenfranchisement furthers racial disparity in the United States.
      There were also weaknesses of my paper. There were hardly any recent scholarly sources on the topic. Most were from 2008 and prior. Another weakness I felt that my paper had was that the research was mostly history and facts rather than statistical data. I wish I could have found more statistical data, especially on how felon disenfranchisement effects minorities.
      I recommend there to be further research on a few topics related to felon disenfranchisement. There needs to be more research on how drastic the outcome of elections is due to those who are disenfranchised. There also needs to be further research on felon disenfranchisement and other countries. All of the research I found was about the United States.
     In conclusion, data suggests felon disenfranchisement causes more harm than good. Felon disenfranchisement affects all United States citizens, not just felons. It causes racial disparity in the United States. Voting is a fundamental right that all should be able to exercise, regardless of status.



Reference
Arp, W. & Morton, B. (2005). A political history and analysis of disenfranchisement and restoration of the black vote in Louisiana. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 29(3), 629-638.
Bowers, M. & Preuhs, R. (2009). Collateral consequences of a collateral penalty: the negative effect of felon disenfranchisement laws on the political participations of nonfelons. Social Science Quarterly, 90(3), 722-743.
Cammett, A. (2012). Shadow citizens: felony disenfranchisement and the criminalization of debt. Penn State Law Review, 117(2), 349-405.
Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer (2015). The sentencing project. Retrieved from http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/fd_Felony%20Disenfranchisement%20Primer.pdf
Felony Disenfranchisement Law & Legal Definition (n.d.). U.S. legal. Retrieved from http://definitions.uslegal.com/f/felony-disenfranchisement/
Grady, S. C. (2012). Civil death is different: an examination of a post-graham challenge to felon disenfranchisement under the eighth amendment. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 102(2), 441-470.
Hoskins, Z. (2014). Ex-offender restrictions. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 31(1), 33-48.
Preuhs, R. (2001). State felon disenfranchisement policy. Social Science Quarterly, 82(4), 733-748.
Siegel, J. (2011). Felon disenfranchisement and the fight for universal suffrage. Social Work, 56(1), 89-91.
Stuart, G. (2004). Databases, felons, and voting: bias and partisanship of the Florida felon list in the 2000 elections. Political Science Quarterly, 119(3), 453-475.


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