Why Should Felons Vote?

This year, more than 600,000 people will be released from prison, returning to their families and their communities, many of them intent on starting over and building a better life.  

These people face many challenges in reentering the world outside the prison walls – getting a job, finding a place to live, staying out of trouble, staying away from drugs. At first, losing the right to vote seems a long way down the list of things that are important.

But as Democracy’s Ghosts shows, being an active, participating member of the community helps with rehabilitation. It helps the community by strengthening its voting base. And history shows that there’s an inequality to disfranchisement, as many of the original Jim Crow laws were intended to disfranchise African Americans, whose voter base in some states are still affected by those laws today.

Excluding ex-felons from the polls is costly, too. In states like Florida, there’s an expensive layer of bureaucracy in place just to deal with the rights restoration process.

There are those who argue that people with felony convictions shouldn't be allowed to vote because they are untrustworthy in character, raising a concern about how these people would vote. But in that case, would we exclude admitted racists or, taking that argument even further, perhaps people who don't know enough about politics?

Others argue that ex-felons would somehow vote for a pro-crime agenda. It's difficult to imagine how this would happen, and in fact it hasn't happened in states or even countries where felons can vote. In fact, disfranchisement policies are in sharp conflict with the goal of promoting public safety. A study in Minnesota showed that felons who voted in the previous biennial election had a far lower risk of committing another crime than non-voting felons, and that this effect holds net of age, race and criminal history. So, to use the words of evangelist Chuck Colson, opening up our democracy is in society’s “enlightened self-interest.”

Source:  Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, Voting and Subsequent Crime and Arrest: Evidence from a Community Sample, 36 Col. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 193 (2004-2005).

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