Felons & Voting

In 2016 Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe endeavored to restore felons’ voting rights in his state. In the United States, disenfranchising citizens for felony convictions is a common practice and some states extend the disenfranchisement beyond the felon’s criminal sentence.  Since McAuliffe is a Democratic, the Republicans have accused him of engaging in a political move. The gist of the charge is that since felons are disproportionately minorities and minorities tend to vote for Democrats, McAuliffe is trying to get votes for Hillary Clinton. Naturally, he denies this and claims that his motives are pure and noble. Before proceeding to this matter, I will start by addressing the general issue of denying felons the right to vote.

Since I am registered as a Democrat (because Florida is a closed primary state), I might be accused of the same motive as McAuliffe—that I just want felons to vote because they are more likely to vote for Democrats. However, my motive is irrelevant to my arguments, which are as follows.

In the United States, the disenfranchisement of citizens has a constitutional basis in that it is allowed “for participation in rebellion, or other crime.” That is not in dispute.  Also, legality is obviously simply set by the law—but my concern is with the morality of disenfranchising felons and not with what is in the rulebook. After all, history is replete with wicked laws.

In a state that professes to be a democracy, the right of citizens to vote is the bedrock right. As Locke and other philosophers have argued, the foundation of political legitimacy in a democracy is the consent of the governed. As such, to unjustly deny a citizen the right to vote is to attack the foundation of democracy and to erode the legitimacy of the state. Because of this, the only crimes that should disenfranchise are those that would warrant taking away the person’s citizenship. In general, the crime would need to be such that it constitutes a rejection of citizenship. The most obvious example would be treason against the country.

It might be objected that felony level crimes are so bad that they all warrant disenfranchising a citizen. One obvious reply is that the right to vote in the United States is not predicated on being virtuous or even marginally informed or marginally competent. The only requirements are being a certain age and being a citizen. Now, if there were morality or competency tests for having the right to vote (which would be exceptionally problematic in their own right), then a case could be made that felons would fail such tests and thus justly denied this right. However, the right to vote comes with being a citizen and what does not remove citizenship should not take away the right to vote.

A second obvious reply is that while there are truly awful felonies that might seem to warrant disenfranchisement (like committing mass murder), there is a multitude of felonies that do not seem even remotely severe enough to warrant such punishment. After all, the bar for what counts as a felony is often very low indeed. As such, there seems to be no justification for disenfranchising felons for crimes that are not directly relevant to their status as citizens.

Even if disenfranchisement for felonies was justified, some US states extend this beyond the person’s criminal sentence. That is, even after serving their time, some felons are not permitted to vote (although some states permit people to attempt to regain this right). This practice is unjust on the face of it. After all, if the disenfranchisement is part of the punishment for a felony, then the punishment should end when the person has served their sentence. As such, even if voting rights could be justly taken away, their restoration should be automatic upon completion of the sentence. I now turn to the Virginia case.

Not surprisingly, the origin story of disenfranchising felons in Virginia is a tale of explicit racism: the white Democrats of that time explicitly used this a tool to keep black voters from the polls. The tools employed to suppress the black vote also impacted poor white voters, but this was regarded as either an acceptable price to pay or actually a desirable result. Lest anyone rush to take this as evidence of racism on the part of the current Democratic Party; one should consider the history of the Southern Strategy. That said, it is true that the Democrats were once the explicitly racist party and true that the Republican Party was once truly the party of Lincoln. It is also true that I used to routinely run sub 17 minute 5Ks; but that was then and this is now.

Of course, to take the origin of a thing to discredit the thing would be to fall victim to the genetic fallacy. As such, while felony disenfranchisement was explicitly created to disenfranchise black voters, perhaps it serves a legitimate purpose today. While I am certainly open to arguments in favor of disenfranchising people, I am not aware of any compelling moral arguments in its favor. Not surprisingly, the main focus of the debate in Virginia is not over the rightness or wrongness of this disenfranchisement but on the alleged motives of the governor.

As his Republican critics see it, Governor McAuliffe’s efforts to restore the voting rights of felons is motivated by politics. Minorities make up a disproportionate number of convicted felons and minorities tend to vote for Democrats. As such, the charge is that he is trying to help Hillary Clinton and other Democrats win in the 2016 elections by enfranchising more Democrats. In terms of the actual facts, felons are generally more likely to be Democrats, but they also tend to vote at an extremely low rate when their voting rights are restored. As such, the impact of restoring voting rights on an election is in dispute; although Republicans often express terror at the prospect of felons illegally voting.

Assuming that felons are more likely to vote for Democrats, it certainly makes political sense for Republicans to oppose restoring voting rights to felons. However, this is obviously also motivated by politics and thus puts the Republicans on par with the governor. They cannot justly regard him as being wrong in wanting to restore voting rights to gain an electoral advantage when they want to deny these rights to gain their own advantage. From a moral standpoint what is needed is not accusations about motives but actual arguments for or against restoring voting rights.

It might be claimed that motivations do matter. It is true that they do—but they matter in terms of assessing the morality of the person taking an action, not in terms of the morality of the action itself or its consequences. To use a non-political example, if I give money to a flood relief charity in Louisiana only because I want to impress a woman with my alleged generosity and compassion, then my motivation is hardly laudable. However, this does not have any relevance to the issue of whether or not giving to such a charity is the right thing to do or the issue of whether or not it would have good consequences. Those are distinct issues. Returning to the case of restoring voting rights, it could be true that the governor’s real motivation is to advance the interests of his party. It could be true that if he believed felons would be more likely to vote Republican, then he would oppose restoring their right to vote. While his motivations matter when it comes to assessing him morally, they have no bearing on the issue of whether these rights should be restored. Likewise, it could be true that the Republicans oppose the restoration because they believe the felons will tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans. It could even be true that they would fight tooth and nail to restore felon voting rights if they believed that felons would be more likely to vote Republican. Their motivations are relevant to judging them as people; but irrelevant to the issue of whether or not voting rights should be restored.

I do believe that the disenfranchisement of felons is a political tool that is now intended to help Republican candidates. It is but one disenfranchisement tool among the many that are undermining the legitimacy of the United States. As noted above, I also contend that the theft of a citizens voting rights for anything short of a crime on par with treason is morally unjustified and an attack of the very foundation of democracy. Those who believe in democracy and not simply in having their side in power should also oppose disenfranchising felons in particular and the calculated destruction of voting rights in general. At this point I will close by saying that I believe that serious questions can be raised about the legitimacy of a government based on an electoral system that is damaged by systematic disenfranchisement. While I rarely agree with Trump, he is right to claim that the system is broken and needs to be fixed.


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