Ex-offenders and the right to vote

Will democracy take hold in the Middle East? The prospect is thrilling. If democracy is sustained there, it is likely to be beneficial not only to those who live there but I believe, in the long run for everyone.

There are good reasons to think that democracies are superior political systems to autocracies. The case for democratic systems rests not upon them being more efficient but that they are more ethical, as it is the one system that recognizes the dignity of each individual by granting the right to determine one’s own fate. When people are respected and feel valued, they are more likely, over time, to make better choices than can a small group of people no matter how benevolent.

The right to self-determination is conditional, though. Aristotle thought it only belonged to certain males; American signers of the constitution agreed but we expanded the circle of inclusiveness. However, to this day we continue, for good reason, to exclude certain groups from the full privileges of citizenship, for example non-citizens and children.

Citizenship rights can also be revoked from those who once had them. Kentucky and Virginia laws deny the right to vote to all with a felony record. Florida had a similar law but restored voting rights to former felons a few years ago. Now the newly elected governor wants to revert to the older approach. Gov. Rick Scott, of Florida thinks that ex-convicts should lose the right to vote. “A permanent loss of civil rights is part of the debt owed to society,” he said.

If the governor gets his way, it will be a reversal of Florida’s current law, in effect since 2007. More than 150,000 Floridians regained their right to vote after being released from prison. Now, under Scott’s proposal, the denial of civil rights would apply even to first-time non-violent felons, as there would be a mandatory waiting period of at least five years before the right to vote would be restored.

Not only would former felons not be eligible to vote, they also wouldn’t be able to receive state occupational licenses, thereby being deprived of the possibility of being employed in certain occupations.

Howard Simon, the executive director of Florida’s Civil Liberties Union writes, “In public, the change was based on a contrived claim that making people wait longer to return to full citizenship would reduce the number of ex-offenders who commit new crimes – making them earn the right to vote as some sort of reward. But the studies show just the opposite – former offenders who are permitted to register and vote have a lower rate of recidivism by half.”

Depriving serious offenders of their citizenship makes sense. By their behavior they have indicated that they don’t have the interests of society at heart. Not only have they acted selfishly, but also have acted anti-socially. Citizenship rights rests upon shared loyalties, which serious felons have demonstrably shown that they do no abide by. Depriving felons of their right to vote while serving their sentences is a reasonable ethical position. (Maine and Vermont, though, do grant the right to vote to felons while in prison.)

The US stands alone amongst democracies in continued revocation of citizenship rights to ex-offenders. The basic idea for restoring an ex-felons rights is that their punishment was prison time and to deprive them of the right to vote when their sentence has been served is to impose yet another punishment. The reason for America’s anomalous stance is historical. When blacks were granted the vote, many Southern states adopted backdoor tactics to keep African Americans out of the polling booths. Literacy tests and tests for good moral character was used, as was the denial of the right to vote for offenders and ex-offenders.

Some suspect the real reason for Scott’s proposal isn’t moral at all; it isn’t about having “a permanent debt to society.” The courts determined the debt and it was the time they spent in prison. A life-sentence is a permanent debt, not anything short of that. The reason is cynically political. Most of the ex-offenders in Florida vote Democrat. An even more insidious reason is racial—a large percentage of ex-felons are African-American.

If the moral argument for allowing an ex-offender to vote isn’t persuasive enough, there are practical reasons. ACLU’s Simon points out that former offenders who vote are twice as likely to stay out of prison. In this instance, good ethics also has practical economic consequences. It is expensive to house prisoners.

Citizenship is a valued thing and the right to vote is precious. I only hope that the majority of legislators in Florida will see that it is wisest to leave the law as it is.


3 thoughts on “Ex-offenders and the right to vote

  1. Well said Arthur!

    I feel that the right to vote is part of the identity of any self-respecting person. To an extent, denying someone the right to vote is calling them less than human- not worthy of respect. It sounds like a cruel and unusual punishment to me.

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