Rap star Pusha T made headlines last week when he went on CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and said felons should have the right to vote. “It’s tearing apart our community right now,” he told Colbert. “It’s like you keep paying forever, we have to change that.”
The debate over felony disenfranchisement is rooted in an ambiguously phrased clause of the 14th Amendment that says states have the right to disenfranchise anyone convicted of participating “in rebellion, or other crime.” It’s a debate that’s proved bitterly divisive, one that’s unresolved to this day.
As it stands today, Maine and Vermont are the only two states with unrestricted voting rights for felons — if you’re serving time in a Maine or Vermont prison, you still cast your vote via absentee ballot. In 14 other states and the District of Columbia, your voting rights are restored once you’ve left prison. In the remaining 34, felons are barred from voting until they’ve completed parole, and 11 states require a petition filed to the state’s attorney general.
Those in favor of felony disenfranchisement often argue that those who break the law shouldn’t have a say in how new laws are made. In committing a crime, they voided that privilege and demonstrated that they’re unfit to vote with the good of the nation in mind.
This logic seems sound on the surface. But when you realize that felons’ lives are being controlled by a law-making process that they have no say in — and even, in many states, long after they’ve re-entered society — that logic falls apart. Shouldn’t felons have a say in the law, given that their lives are impacted by the laws far more than any other group in society? The law determines how long they’ll stay in prison, how long their parole will last, what crimes could send them back to prison in the future. To deny them a say in the law-making process excludes from the body politic the portion of society most directly affected by that process.
Furthermore, we don’t strip people of their citizenship when they receive a prison sentence. They’re still Americans, and they still live within the geographical borders of the country. The legal grounds for felony disenfranchisement are maddeningly vague and ambiguous at best, but they’re enough to cast felons as second-class citizens.
Some argue that felons would only vote in their own interest — they’d vote for reduced prison sentences, decriminalization of narcotics, more funding to federal and state prisons. And that’s absolutely true — felons may well vote only in self-interest, much like billionaires who vote in favor of corporate tax breaks and stoners who vote for the legalization of marijuana. That’s how a democracy works. You don’t get to tell people who to vote for or what to vote for. So long as each person has an equal say, the self-interest balances out.
You also have to take into account the societal costs of excluding a segment of the population from the body politic. A felon might feel less inclined to obey laws he or she has had no say in. A democracy functions because it places responsibility upon the individual citizen. If you don’t like a law, too bad — you had a say in its creation. You were a part of the political process that wrote the laws and approved them.
But this line of thinking falls apart when you look at the disenfranchisement of felons in the United States. A felon has no say in the law-making process; he or she has no say in the election of officials who represent him or her, and who write the laws he or she must abide by. Felons have someone other than themselves to blame. The responsibility shifts — and rightly shifts — off of them.
By welcoming the segment of the population with criminal backgrounds back into the body politic, we would shift that sense of responsibility back onto the individual. And while no one is claiming that restoring voting rights to felons will wipe out crime overnight, it’s a start. By involving felons in the law-making process that has dictated much of their lives, we’ll reinvest a part of the population currently languishing under the label of a second-class citizenry — one that must abide by the law, but has no say in it.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.