Pixabay public domain
Source: Pixabay public domain

The two would-be burglars, Harry and Stan, plotted their crime well. They staked out the premises, knew when the property owners would be away, understood how to dismantle the security system, and had a well-planned escape route. Every contingency had been considered and they were ready to go, prepared to execute the big-money heist.

The day before the planned burglary, however, something happened that caused both men to have second thoughts. While reading the morning news, Stan came upon a story that caught his attention. “Hey Harry, check this out,” Stan said, his eyes not moving from his tablet. “Did you know that if we get caught and convicted, we won't be able to vote in this state anymore?”

“No way!” replied Harry, clearly surprised. “Maybe we shouldn’t go through with this heist. I wouldn’t want to lose the right to vote!”

And with that, the two men left behind their criminal ways and soon became productive, law-abiding citizens.

Such a ridiculous scenario is pure fiction, of course, because criminals don’t think or act that way. And this illustrates the absurdity of felony disenfranchisement laws, which are on the books in one form or another in a majority of states. The harshest disenfranchisement provisions, forbidding convicted felons from voting for life, are still in place in about a dozen states. In those jurisdictions, a young adult who makes a stupid mistake—a drug conviction, for example, or an assault and battery—can be forever banned from the voting booth.

Not only is it outlandish to think that felony disenfranchisement laws could be a deterrent to crime, there are numerous other reasons to question them. A key goal of the criminal justice system is to ensure that those convicted, after having paid their debt to society, are incorporated back into functional citizenship as soon as possible. If so, it’s hard to see how exclusion from one of the most fundamental activities of a free society—voting—helps to achieve that end.

Lifetime loss of voting rights is so contrary to the notion of participatory democracy that one might think a constitutional challenge to disenfranchisement laws would be in order. Unfortunately, however, the issue has already gone to the Supreme Court, which upheld such laws in the 1974 case of Richardson v. Ramirez, noting in its decision that the Fourteenth Amendment actually contains language that at least implicitly acknowledges the right of states to disenfranchise convicts. No matter what we may think of this ruling, there is little sense that it will be reversed anytime soon.

If court victories in challenging the laws are unlikely, a more plausible route for change might be democracy itself, by making the issue a political priority and putting pressure on lawmakers. This is an issue that goes to the essence of democracy. There are currently close to six million people being denied voting rights under disenfranchisement laws nationwide, thus alienating large segments of the population from the democratic process. In Alabama, for example, it's estimated that over seven percent of the citizenry is barred from voting. 

Importantly, felony disenfranchisement is not just unfair to the rehabilitated convict who wishes to join mainstream society, it’s also a sanction that disproportionately targets minorities and the poor. The Alabama figure mentioned above, for example, rises 15 percent in the African-American demographic. 

The unsettling truth is that disenfranchisement is a living remnant of deeply ingrained racism and classism in American society, a tool of those wielding power for suppressing certain demographic groups. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe acknowledged this when he issued an executive order recently restoring voting rights to 200,000 felons in that state. “There’s no question we’ve had a horrible history in voting rights as relates to African-Americans,” McAuliffe said. “We should remedy it.”

As anyone who works in the courts knows, the judicial system is far from perfect and wrongful convictions occur frequently. DNA testing is showing that even those on death row are sometimes innocent, and we can only speculate as to how often other criminal defendants are wrongly convicted. For defendants who can’t afford pricey lawyers and a full-fledged criminal defense, there can be no doubt that the answer is too often. This imperfect system, favoring the rich and the white, should hardly be determining who gets to vote in our democracy.

Public awareness of flaws in the American criminal justice system, from the nation’s outrageous rates of incarceration to the imbalanced treatment of racial minorities, is on the rise, but there is no single solution to the multitude of problems. Instead, most progress on the ground will be made only one issue at a time, one solution at a time. Some answers will be found in the courts, while others will require popular pressure on lawmakers via the various means available in democratic politics.

The outdated, unfair, and inherently discriminatory notion of felony disenfranchisement falls into the latter category. Politicians and political parties, particularly in this election year with promises being made and platforms being drafted, must see that people care about the issue and consider it a worthwhile priority. Restoring voting rights to those who have paid their dues would be a sign of an enlightened, inclusive population, and a healthy democracy.

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