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Answering the Challenges to Felon Disenfranchisement

Why should felons not be allowed to vote?

            Because you don’t have a right to make the laws if you aren’t willing to follow them yourself. To participate in self-government, you must be willing to accept the rule of law. We don’t let everyone vote--not children, not noncitizens, not the mentally incompetent. There are certain minimum and objective standards of trustworthiness, loyalty, and responsibility, and those who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens don’t meet those standards.

Shouldn’t some felons be allowed to vote?
            Yes, and some shouldn’t.  The decision to restore the right to vote should not be made automatically.  It should be made carefully, on a case-by-case basis, weighing the seriousness of the crime, how long ago it was committed, and whether there is a pattern of crime.

Haven’t felons paid their debt to society?
            They’ve paid enough of their debt to be allowed out of prison, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t continuing consequences.  We don’t let felons possess firearms or serve on juries, for instance.  By the way, most of the groups that want felons to be able to vote want them to be able to vote when they are still in prison, so this “paid their debt to society” argument is a red herring. 

Aren’t these laws racist?
            No.  They have a disproportionate impact on some racial groups, because at any point in time there are always going be some groups that commit more crimes than others, but that doesn’t make the laws racist--just as the fact that more crimes are committed by men doesn’t make criminal laws sexist.  The people whose voting rights will be diluted the most if criminals are allowed to vote are the law-abiding people in high-crime areas, who are themselves disproportionately black and Latino. 

But, historically, weren’t these laws passed to keep African Americans from voting?
            A few southern states did so a hundred years ago, but those statutes are no longer on the books, and they would be unconstitutional if they were.  Today’s laws have their roots in ancient Greece and Rome, came to the American colonies from England, and are found in nearly every state in the country, where they were adopted without any racist intent at all and have never been applied discriminatorily.

Don’t these laws keep felons from rejoining society?
            Two out of three felons who are released from prison commit another crime, but it is ridiculous to assert that the reason they do so is that they can’t vote.  If a felon shows that he or she really has turned over a new leaf and is no longer a threat to the community but is giving something back to it, there should be a formal ceremony that restores the right to vote to that individual.  But it should not be done automatically.

Do these laws violate the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act?
            No.  The Supreme Court has ruled that they do not violate the Constitution, and indeed the Constitution itself contains language approving of felon disenfranchisement.  Similarly, the history of the Voting Rights Act makes clear that it was not intended to require letting criminals vote.