A Left-Wing Approach to the Question of Universal Suffrage

Felons have long been barred from voting in the state of Kentucky. In 2019, Governor Andy Beshear signed an executive order to allow certain non-violent felons to vote. However, executive orders are not permanent and can be overturned by future governors. In Kentucky right now, 15% of Black people cannot vote, and 20% of Black men specifically cannot vote. Across the state of Kentucky, restoring voting rights for felons has 67% support among voting aged adults that cuts across party and county lines. The arguments for restoring felon voting rights are numerous, but Marxist and leftist theory offers some particular insights into felon disenfranchisement. 

Writings of Leftist Leaders

There is a common misconception that Karl Marx rejects democracy as a whole, but it is clear from his works that he views democracy as a vehicle towards a better future; Marx argues that democracy is a much more authentic representation of the populace than monarchy or authoritarianism, and he argues that democracy should be the goal of societies imprisoned by illiberal regimes. Marx argues that the constitution and state in a democracy are the will of the people and therefore other states “are false to the extent that they are not democracy” (Springborg 540). Marx argues that in any society the people want to participate in the political process to the extent that they want to participate in society and argues that “the extension and greatest possible universalization of voting, of active as well as passive suffrage” is the best course of action. Essentially, that the population should be heard through both economic and political participation. 

Marx goes on to define voting as the “chief political interest of actual civil society,” because at a fundamental level it allows society to participate in legislative action. Marx takes a very strong approach to the equality of all human beings, and he extends that equality to voting, arguing in favor of complete universal suffrage. He pairs that with an argument about freedom of man to choose his own destiny, arguing that true equality and freedom come from choice, thus doubly reinforcing his support of universal suffrage (Springborg 544-548). 

Marx and Friedrich Engels argue that the working class must organize into a political party and that political participation is necessary. In later works they both support universal suffrage as a means of giving political power to the working class. It is entirely false to say that the United States has ever had universal suffrage. For much of our nation’s history, Black people, Native Americans, and women could not vote. Even today, some states have incredibly restrictive voting laws that depress voter registration and turnout. But it is felon disenfranchisement that takes the cake, disenfranchising millions of Americans. 

Engels does caution in Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that “universal suffrage is thus the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the modern state, but that is enough. On the day when the thermometer of universal suffrage shows a boiling point among the workers, they as well as the capitalists will know where they stand.” Essentially, Engels argues that while universal suffrage will not overthrow the state, it is necessary to enhance the power of the downtrodden. 

Rosa Luxembourg, a German-Polish Marxist thinker and anti-war activist, articulates that Social Democracy must participate to the fullest extent possible in politics and that institutions such as “the police, the army, the state bureaucracy and corrupted party politicians” will try to push back against any class mobilization, which is why strong participation in politics is necessary for any labor movement. Leon Trotsky sums up classic leftist thought on the matter by stating, “The Proletariat’s most important method of struggle against the bourgeoisie, that is, against the bourgeoisie’s state power, is first and foremost mass action”, again calling for political participation and universal suffrage. As Lenin puts it, “The main task of contemporary Communism in Western Europe and America is to learn to seek, to find, to correctly determine the specific path or the particular turn of events that will bring the masses right up against the real, last, decisive, and great revolutionary struggle.” What is clear from all of these authors is that the first step in any society is establishing democracy, the next is universal suffrage and political activism, and the final is the continuation of class struggle towards an equitable end. 

The Situation in the United States

The United States is one of the most well established democracies in the world, but it has failed time and time again to provide universal suffrage, denying its populace equality and freedom in the process. The newest iteration of this is New Era Jim Crow legislation that denies former felons voting rights. Working towards universal suffrage should be a priority because it represents not only the opportunity for political power, but equality. This problem extends far beyond felon disenfranchisement, with Kentucky also discouraging mail-in ballots by limiting voter drop boxes and reducing the time you have to return a ballot and the Supreme Court recently gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Among leftists, it is a common belief that true democracy transcends capitalism, but that any worker’s movement requires democracy to gain traction. Any rollback in voting rights, including felon disenfranchisement, reduces the power of the proletariat and makes it more difficult to organize for the working class’ interests. 

From a leftist or socialist perspective, felon status is irrelevant to the issue of voting because democracy should be predicated on uncompromising universal suffrage. Leftists view voting as a fundamental right within a democracy, a link to state participation that cannot be cut. Beyond the fundamental nature of voting, this is a working class issue. Crime is inherently tied to poverty in the United States, and the overlap between poverty, crime and racism is extreme. Felon disenfranchisement deprives mainly working class people of the right to vote, significantly diminishing their political power and hitting Black communities particularly hard.

Socialists have been front and center at various points in the United States’ history, fighting for voting rights from the Women’s Suffrage movement to the Black Panther Party. The socialist support of universal suffrage is two pronged: moral and practical. Morally, every person in a society should be able to politically participate, or else there is no freedom, no equality. Practically, workers can only gain political power through sheer numbers, and when the government purposely reduces the political power of Black people and poor people through felon disenfranchisement it prevents the working class from gaining political power, thus allowing the ruling class to continue the status quo of economic exploitation. 

This problem is amplified in the United States in particular due to mass incarceration and vestiges of Jim Crow era racism in our criminal justice system. One surprising factor is that representation in Congress is based on a census count that includes disenfranchised felons. Felons who cannot vote thus contribute to their voting district’s population, giving undue political power to others in those districts. As Tracy Huling points out in Mother Jones, one particularly grievous example is that districts with large prisons, which are overwhelmingly rural, white, Republican districts, are reapportioned votes based on the total population including prisoners who cannot vote. This system of mass incarceration provides cheap labor for the ruling class while at the same time reducing the political potency of the working class. This is a glaring miscarriage of justice, and it harkens back to the memory of the ⅗ Compromise in the Constitution which counted slaves as ⅗ of a person in the census count despite having no voting or citizenship rights, strengthening the political power of slave states. Today, the census count can affect education funding, number of representatives, and more, all at the expense of those who are incarcerated.

Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow all felons voting rights even while in prison, and they serve as an example to emulate. Felons pay taxes, they have jobs, their children go to public school, they are members of society, and they are human. Any capitalist regime promotes inequalities in society because it benefits the elite, and the poverty that it creates is heavily correlated to crime in the United States. If committing a crime is grounds to have voting rights taken away, then the state wields an incredibly powerful tool for silencing the interests of the working class. History abounds with examples of Black, brown, and poor communities disenfranchised by the state, and the only way to prevent the state from using its power unjustly is to ensure complete and universal suffrage. 

When a person commits a serious crime against another person, society often dictates prison time as punishment, but allowing the state to deprive someone of the right to vote is a separate issue. In the case of prison time, the state takes away someone’s liberty in order to keep society safe and as punishment, but taking away the right to vote merely seeks to serve the interest of the ruling class and does nothing to repay a debt to society. Universal suffrage is an issue of state overreach at its core. The question is not whether a person in jail deserves the right to vote, it’s whether the state should be allowed to deprive someone of that fundamental democratic right. 

It is clear that universal suffrage is a fundamental aspect of democracy and that unjustly depriving felons of voting rights decreases the working class’ political power and perpetuates classist and racist institutions and practices. All major leftist thinkers call for a strong democracy to advance the interest of workers in order to further class consciousness and the struggle against oppressive capitalism. The ruling class has used disenfranchisement against the working class time and time again and this most recent iteration of mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement is no different. 
A lack of universal suffrage only seeks to hinder the working class from achieving its full political potential, and the ruling class actively pursues disenfranchisement for this same reason. Universal suffrage is the next step to furthering the goals of the working class in America and is the next frontier of civil rights within our borders. In Kentucky specifically, there are particularly draconian voting rights laws that our state has the chance to change. Now is the time to restore the right to vote to over 198,000 Kentuckians who are unjustly deprived of participation in a fundamental part of society.

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