The Philosophical and Moral Implications of Felon Disenfranchisement

Great socio-political thinkers have sought to unravel the mystery of criminal disenfranchisement. There is no obvious answer as to who has the right to  deprive another human being of their basic human right to vote.

History of Minority Exclusion from Voting

The United States has a track record of excluding different groups of people from voting. During colonial times, only land-owning white males were eligible to vote, which resulted in an extremely low voter turnout rate for the election of George Washington in 1789. The next year, the 1790 Naturalization law was passed which explicitly stated that only free white immigrants could become citizens. In 1856, all white men were eligible to vote, but no minority groups could vote. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868, which gave former slaves citizenship, though voting remained only for white males. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was established in the Constitution, which prohibited the denial of voting based on race. This was later outmaneuvered with the introduction of poll taxes and literacy tests that targeted African Americans who were largely undereducated at the time. In 1887, the Dawes Act granted citizenship to Native Americans if they gave up their tribal affiliation, which was problematic in itself. 

Three years later, Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote. It wouldn’t be until 1920 when women – white women – were given the right to vote in both state and federal elections with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In 1961, the Twenty-Third Amendment confirmed that citizens of Washington D.C. were eligible to vote, but still nothing for African Americans. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed only after a concerted campaign in the South, known as the civil rights movement, during which many  African Americans were lynched and subjected to various types of terrorism from white supremacist militant organizations. Now, the discourse has shifted towards felon disenfranchisement, which disproportionately involves people of color and coincidently poor people who cannot vote due to many state legislature blockades.

Do We Hold These Truths that All Men Are Created Equal?

In his letter to the clergymen from Birmingham City Jail, the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” and that “all segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality, giving the segregated a false sense of inferiority”. Dr. King fought for the civil rights of Black people to end the systemic oppression that was prevalent in America at the time. His message still echoes today as millions of Americans are unable to vote due to their legal status within the criminal justice system. One of the key principles of being an American citizen is having the right to vote, run for and hold public offices, among other civil liberties. Some are considered to be citizens of the United States, but are not granted the same rights because they committed a certain offense despite serving their sentence and having paid their debt to society. As of 2020, there are an estimated 5.2 million people who are considered disenfranchised felons. The discourse of the details of who qualifies is a different topic, when looking in aggregate, having millions of eligible voters not being given that opportunity because of a few people in power is baffling.

The foundational `principles of the United States stem from self-determination and the notion that all men are created equal. The U.S. Declaration of Independence notes that all men are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, historically speaking, these beliefs have been short-lived time and time again. Elected officials have that moral obligation to ensure the foundational rights of individuals are not encroached upon by other individuals or themselves and individuals have a responsibility to pursue justice when observing unjust laws.

The United States Status on Human Rights Treaties

We can look to many governing bodies and their stance on human rights and how it correlates to felon disenfranchisement. For example, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a document signed by the United States, explicitly states that all humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights, they have the right to life, liberty, and the security of persons, and are equal before the law and ought to be entitled to equal protection of the law. We can look at Article 2 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination that notes that States Parties condemn racial discrimination and undertake to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and promoting understanding among all races, another treaty that the United States has long ratified. It appears that the positions taken by the United States on the international level do not match its domestic politics. 

No Incentives Objection

Deterrence theorists have already emphasized that unfair punishment relies on the participation of elected officials. When an individual is disenfranchised, they lose the opportunity to directly challenge their disenfranchisement through voting. Coincidentally, elected officials perceive no benefit in addressing the concerns of persons unfairly penalized in having protection against unjust protection because they will not be able to affect their prospects of losing an election. This issue will remain difficult until elected leaders cease using disenfranchised convicts as pawns and a means to an end in their political careers. According to the Federalist Papers, No. 51, if angels ruled over humanity, no external nor internal checks on government would be necessary. We can take this lesson as well. If politicians acted and behaved like angels, we would not be having these types of discussions. Unfortunately, this is not the case, we are all humans and have similar tendencies. However, we should not excuse the behavior and inactions of legislators regarding the 5.2 million disenfranchised felons.

Where do we Go from Here?

When engaging in such a discussion, it is necessary to ask who is responsible for resolving this issue. And, if so, what justification does that person/group have for taking such action? The answer is a group effort. If history has taught us anything, it is that all significant movements are not one-way streets. Individuals and groups cannot stage protests, voting campaigns, and so on and expect rapid effects. If there is to be true development, our elected representatives must recognize their moral responsibility and commitment to ensure and safeguard individual freedom by ending felon disenfranchisement.

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