Felony Disenfranchisement: A Stain on Democracy
Dr. Michael Murphy
Fundamental to the democracy which the United States of America appears to pride itself on is the right to vote. An engrained principle of democracy, enfranchisement- the admittance to citizenship particularly through voting- is permanently altered in some states. Is a government truly democratic if it permanently disenfranchises its citizens? Are those who are disenfranchised less ‘citizen-like’ because of their inability to cast a ballot? In this essay, I will argue that felon disenfranchisement in the United ...view middle of the document...
Disenfranchisement is traced back to medieval times when infamous criminals could suffer a ‘civil death’ whereby they essentially become dead in the eyes of the law. The convicted could not participate in any aspect of the legal system including property ownership or involvement in juries (Chin 2012). In America today, a similar ‘civil death’ occurs with felon disenfranchisement; an ex-convict appears to have broken a ‘civil contract’ and in certain states is therefore no longer permitted to participate in civil life. Felonies inhibiting the right to vote can include first time offenses ranging from cheque fraud to murder. It is estimated that “3.9 million Americans, or 1 in 50 adults, had either currently or permanently lost their right to vote as a result of a felony conviction” (Roberts 2004:1292). Because of the operation of American judicial systems, “state law governs removal of the right to vote, even if the conviction is for a federal, rather than a state offence” (FELLNER GET REAL CITATION). There are nine states which subjugate ex convicts to permanent felon disenfranchisement, three of which- Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee only after certain offences, and two which disenfranchise after a second offence- Arizona and Nevada. An additional three states disenfranchise ex-convicts for up to five years after certain offences (The Sentencing Project 2012).
Felony Disenfranchisement’s Effect on Citizenship
After committing a felony crime, a person is no less a citizen of America than they were before committing the crime. “Citizens who commit crimes cannot be forced to leave the country or legally declared noncitizens” (MANZA AND UGGEN 2006: 186), so why then is a right that is held so pertinent in the responsibilities of citizenship stripped after an illegal act? Committing a social wrong does not mean that one is any less American, or any less able to participate in legal life.
Additionally, there are many decisions passed through politics about incarceration, punishment, parole, and the like each year. By affecting citizenship through felon disenfranchisement, many states do not permit the people who these decisions would affect be a voice in deciding if they should be passed. The laws and policies relating to ex-convicts will, in some states, never get the opinion of the ex-convict himself. Judith Shklar explains that “disenfranchised Americans…have asked…that citizenship be equally distributed, so that their standing might also be recognized and their interests be defended” (1991: 30). Here we can see discontinuity; if state governments were to pass legislation on public transportation, for example, those employed or affected by the use of public transportation would have the option to vote for or against that piece of legislation. Ex-convicts do not have that luxery, in that in certain states, they become subject to laws that they were in no way permitted to voice a ballot-related opinion on. The...