In comparison to the rest of the developed world, the United States of America has one of the most punitive prison systems. The government claims that its prisons focus on rehabilitation, yet on average, 60 percent of all inmates will return to prison (Chung). Felons’ lives are thereby deemed unlivable because they are perceived as morally corrupt, “social contract” breakers. As a consequence, most state governments, aside from Maine and Vermont, prohibit felons from participating in democratic processes. While the majority of states do permit felons to vote after the completion of their prison sentence and probation period, eleven states – whose prison populations account for 50 percent of incarcerated inmates – permanently disenfranchise all felons (Chung). Their disenfranchisement is often supported by the claim that because felons broke the social contract, it is in the interest of the public to not have their political representation. Under this assumption, allowing the enfranchisement of felons is harmful because society is allowing “morally corrupt” individuals to influence American laws. By upholding these current policies that strip felons of their voting rights, lawmakers undermine American democracy under the guise of a collectivist narrative that supposedly strengthens its citizens’ self-determination.
Regarding felons’ rights, lawmakers have shifted from liberal and conservative ideals to democratic theories of citizenship to support disenfranchisement. Republican theory upholds the belief that disenfranchisement is justified because incarcerated individuals lack the civic virtues required for participation in the political process. Liberal theory, meanwhile, states that because incarcerated individuals violated society’s social contract, they should not be permitted to vote. Both of these theories lack insight into the beliefs and characteristics of incarcerated individuals. There is much more to the reason why an individual commits a crime than just the belief that they are a bad person. The reasons why someone commits a crime are very multi-faceted and many times one’s upbringing plays a large role in their behavior. Thus, Republican theory cannot determine whether or not individual felons possess fewer civic virtues than enfranchised individuals. Likewise, Liberal theory cannot support the idea that, although felons broke the social contract required of American citizens, many of them still recognize the authority of the American government and want to participate in the political process.
Democratic theory, instead of focusing on the actions of the individual, employs a collectivist lens to justify disenfranchisement. Self-determination, the process in which citizens directly control their government, is the main tenant of Democratic theory used to support barring felons from political participation. Supporters of this theory believe that because the public has the right to self-determination, they should be able to decide who is eligible to participate in the democratic process. Democratic theorists, like Peter Ramsay, contend that democratic self-determination requires disenfranchisement (Whitt). In his conclusion, democratic governments require voters to be able to debate, assemble, and cast their votes without governmental interference (Whitt). Since incarcerated individuals do not have these rights, if they were enfranchised their votes would be essentially meaningless and allow an avenue for governmental influence. Other theorists, such as Mary Sigler, similarly believe that disenfranchisement is justified. Sigler sees incarcerated individuals as punishable because they broke laws meant for the benefit of the public (Whitt). Thus, the political rights of an incarcerated individual must be forfeited in order to restore or preserve self-determination. To Sigler, felons should be punished because “they have violated the civic trust that makes liberal democracy possible” (Whitt). In both of the arguments of these theories, disenfranchisement is justified in order to benefit the public.
This manipulation enables lawmakers and theorists to further illustrate disenfranchisement as an avenue to protect American values. One of the main tenets of American society is the belief that the people control the government and that societal values are supported by the democratic process. Disenfranchisement is then seen as a safeguard to protect our democratic values and processes. Thus, few individuals will argue against what is believed to be the right to self-determination. Concurrently, the debate around the political rights of incarcerated individuals has turned from an individualist to a collectivist argument. Disenfranchisement is then not discredited because it is seen as a collective benefit for our self-determination. Due to these values, American society continues to create a group of adults who abide by the rules of democratic society yet lack the ability to decide the laws that govern them.
As a result, the representation of minority communities’ incarceration rates is strikingly higher than those of white Americans. Historically, disenfranchisement laws targeted the offenses that the government believed black men would be most likely to commit (Sanders). This took form, particularly in the South where the Jim Crow, elected solely by the white ruling class, determined and regulated the rights given to African Americans at that time. When discussing Jim Crow and the enfranchisement of black people, Woodrow Wilson said that “the white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers” (Matthews). Although many of these laws have been abolished, the War on Drugs and other federal policies have directly targeted minority communities, which has led to mass disenfranchisement and underrepresentation. It is estimated that over 77% of disenfranchised voters are from communities of color (Sentencing Project). One in every 13 black adults, equating to 2.2 million people, is currently disenfranchised. In the most punitive states, almost one in five black adults can not vote (Aviram). Studies have shown that in prison recidivism rates are higher in states where felons are permanently disenfranchised. The ability to participate in the political process is essential to rehabilitating offenders because it allows them to establish themselves within their communities and contribute to society. When felons are disenfranchised, this alienates them from effectively participating not only in their community but in society. If they believe that their voice does not matter and that they can’t change their situation, it is very likely that they will re-offend. Due to this cycle of recidivism, disenfranchisement disproportionately affects minority communities because they lack the representation and voting power to change the laws that govern them.
When analyzing the thesis, one may counter the argument by claiming that self-determination supports disenfranchisement. Voting to strip away the voting rights of felons would technically be considered self-determination only for the people who are enfranchised. Critics who support this claim, however, do not see the effects that disenfranchisement has on the legitimacy of our democracy and on representation. By disenfranchising over 6 million Americans, the government contradicts the democratic ideals of self-determination it claims to uphold (Aviram). Self-governance allows for each citizen to be equally heard within their country in order to fulfill the principles of a democratic society. The rights and freedoms given to felons are being chosen undemocratically by the enfranchised population. By allowing this to happen, the government clearly violates the principles of our society that all people are created equal and that every citizen deserves the right to determine the laws which govern them. This in turn leads to the underrepresentation of minority groups because a large portion of their population can’t vote. If enfranchised members of minority groups are underrepresented, they also do not have the ability to influence the laws that govern them. Consequently, an enfranchised population is directly disenfranchised because their vote does not have any weight against the vote of the majority group.
Another counterargument that one may claim is that disenfranchisement is beneficial to our society because it protects our interests. They believe that if felons are allowed the right to vote, they will elect lenient judges who will rule in their favor. This idea is unfounded because there are no studies that show a causal relationship between enfranchised felons’ elect and the election of lenient judges(Aviram). Furthermore, it is entirely illegal and anti-democratic for citizens to vote for lenient judges. Disenfranchisement benefits a select group in society, although it claims to further the interests of the American populous. On the individual level, it inhibits felons from becoming productive and contributing members of their community. On a grand scale, minority groups lose their political power because their populations are disproportionately arrested and charged for crimes. Thus, disenfranchisement is not for the greater good if millions of Americans are being essentially silenced by lacking any form of democratic representation.
By supporting the disenfranchisement of felons, American lawmakers call into question the legitimacy of American democratic processes by employing a collectivist narrative. They believe that self-determination not only justifies but supports disenfranchisement. Under this belief, the public is allowed to strip away the voting rights of individuals through a democratic process. However, this idea is clearly undemocratic because it creates a subsection of our population that can not decide the laws that govern them. Disenfranchisement not only defies our own democratic principles but also calls into question our view of felons. The aim of the penal system is reintegration, but felons are still highly alienated after the completion of their sentence. American lawmakers can not claim that felons are reintegrated into society if those individuals can not participate in democratic processes. Felons are thus seen as non-contributing members of society, yet how can they contribute if they legally are not allowed to? If the American penal system wants to be truly rehabilitative, it must allow for the full integration of felons into society upon the completion of their sentence instead of creating a system that continues to punish individuals permanently.