Do We Want Rapists, Robbers and Murderers to Vote?

My essay on felons and voting received an interesting comment from A.J. McDonald, Jr. He raised a concern about having rapists, robbers and murders voting. One initial reply is that there are many other types of felonies, a significant number of which are non-violent felonies. As such, any discussion of felons and voting needs to consider not just the worst felonies, but all the felonies on the books. And, in the United States, there are many on the books. That said, I will address the specific concern about felons convicted of rape, robbery and murder.

On the face of it, it is natural to have an immediate emotional reaction to the idea of rapists, robbers and murderers voting. After all, these are presumably very bad people and it offensive to think of them exercising the same fundamental right as other citizens. While this reaction is natural, it is generally unwise to try to settle complex moral questions by appealing to an immediate emotional reaction—although calm deliberation might end up in the same place as fiery emotion. I will begin by considering arguments for disenfranchising such felons.

The most plausible argument, given my view that voting rights are foundational rights in a democratic state, is that such crimes warrant removing or at least suspending a person’s status as a citizen. After all, when a person is justly convicted of rape, murder or robbery they are justly punished by suspension of their liberty. In some cases, they are punished by death. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that if the right to liberty (and even life) can be suspended, then the right to vote can be suspended as well. I certainly see the appeal here. However, I think there is a counter to this reasoning.

Punishment by imprisonment is generally aimed at three goals. The first is to protect the public from the criminal by removing him from society and to serve as a deterrent to others.  This could be used to justify taking away the right to vote by arguing that felons are likely to vote in ways that would harm society. The easy and obvious reply is that there seems to be little reason to think that felons could do harm through voting. Or any more harm than non-felon voters. For felons to do real harm through voting, there would need to be harmful choices and these would need to be choices that felons would pick because they are felons and they would need to be able to win that vote It could be claimed that, for example, there might be a vote on reducing prison sentences and the felons would vote in their interest to the detriment of others. While this is possible, it seems unlikely that the felons would be able to win the vote on their own. There is also the obvious counter that non-felons are likely to vote in harmful ways as well—as the history of voting shows. As such, denying felons the vote to protect the public from harm is not a reasonable justification. If there are things being voted for that could do serious harm, then the danger lies with those who got such things on the ballot and not with felons who might vote for it.

The second is the actual punishment, which is typically justified in terms of retribution. This does have some appeal as a justification, assuming that the felon wants to vote and regards being denied the vote as a harm. However, most Americans do not vote—so it is not much of a punishment. There is also the question of whether the denial of the right to vote is a suitable punishment for a crime. Punishments should not simply be tossed onto a crime—they should fit. While paying restitution would fit for a robbery, being denied the right to vote would not seem to fit.

The third is rehabilitation; the prisoner is supposed to be reformed so he can be returned to society (assuming the sentence is not death or life). Denying voting rights would seem to have the opposite effect—the person would be even more disconnected from society. As such, this would not justify removal of the voting rights.

Because of these considerations, even rapists, murderers and robbers should not lose their right to vote. I do agree, as argued in my previous essay, that crimes that are effectively rejections of the criminal’s citizenship (like rebellion and treason) would warrant stripping a person of citizenship and the right to vote. Other crimes, even awful ones, would not suffice to strip away citizenship.

Another approach is to make the case that rapists, murderers and robbers are morally bad or bad decision makers and should be denied the right to vote on moral grounds. While it is true that rapists, murderers and robbers are generally very bad people, the right to vote is not grounded in being a good person (or even just not being bad) or making good (or at least not bad) decisions. While it might seem appealing to have moral and competency tests for voting, there is the obvious problem that many voters would fail such tests. Many politicians would also fail the tests as well.

It could be countered that the only test that would be used is the legal test of whether or not a person is convicted of a felony. While obviously imperfect, it could be argued that those convicted are probably guilty and probably bad people and thus should not be voting. While it is true that some innocent people will be convicted and denied the right to vote and also true that many bad people will be able to avoid convictions, this is acceptable.

A reply to this is to inquire as to why such a moral standard should be used in regards to the right to vote. After all, the right to vote (as I have argued before) is not predicated on moral goodness or competence. It is based on being a citizen, good or bad. As such, any crime that does not justly remove a citizen’s status as a citizen would not warrant removing the right to vote. Yes, this does entail that rapists, murders and robbers should retain the right to vote. This might strike some as offensive or disgusting, but these people remain citizens. If this is too offensive, then such crimes would need to be recast as acts of treason that strip away citizenship. This seems excessive. And there is the fact that there are always awful people voting—they just have not been caught or got away with their awfulness or are clever and connected enough to ensure that the awful things they do are not considered felonies or even crimes. I am just as comfortable allowing a robber to vote as I am to allow Trump and Hillary to vote in their own election.


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  1. Do we want murderers to vote?

    How about Henry Kissinger? I just read about his complicity in the murderous Argentinian junta, how he lobbied against the Carter administration human rights policy in favor of letting the Argentinian junta have a free hand in torturing and murdering dissidents.

    How about George Bush? How many innocent Iraqi civilians and how many idealistic young U.S. men and women in the military are dead because he invaded Iraq under false pretenses? How about Dick Cheney?

    Do we want robbers to vote? What about the subprime swindlers? Did any of them go to jail? Rather, they were bailed out because they were “too big to fail”, but they robbed a lot more money than all of the robbers in San Quentin and Sing Sing prison together.

    Balzac says that behind every great fortune is a great crime. If the fortune is big enough, the crime never goes punished.

  2. Doris Wrench Eisler

    Well, for one thing, not all the rapists, robbers and murderers are in prisons, and it is more the case that only a tiny fraction of them are. Secondly, I don’t believe the right to vote should be removed from the prison population on any grounds other than extreme mental incompetence, because it is on the grounds of their citizenship, in most cases that the sentence and incarceration is legitimated. Also, marginalizing, dehumanizing felons is like saying, “they are not us, or of us”, and that is a delusion: they most definitely are.
    We have the right to protect ourselves from those who would harm us and to prove that is the case to the best of our ability. That is it. We don’t have the right to abuse, mentally or physically,
    anyone, no matter what they are accused and found guilty of and doing so afflicts us as well as them.
    It is also the case that many accused and even executed are/were not guilty as stated.

  3. Dennis Sceviour

    Do we want rapists, robbers and murderers to vote?”

    Yes. Every natural citizen 21 years or older should be allowed to vote in Federal elections.

    What is the purpose of democracy or, is democracy important even if it cannot be clearly defined? It is often the political agenda of some to end democracy. They can do this by creating biased entrenched rights if elected. They can do this by threatening political opposition with perjuriously criminal accusations of rape and murder. Political candidates are in danger of attack all the time (ask Gabby Gifford). Any potential candidate is immediately subject to protests and criminal accusations. Political supporters are also subject to accusations. It is unlikely that was the intention of the creators of the American Bill of Rights, although the original constitution says little or nothing about democracy and voting rights. While the perpetrators may claim to do this under freedom of speech, the public licensed media in general is rather tolerant and favorable towards political candidates in reporting.

    However, voting does not make much difference. The parties have already selected the candidates. The President is not selected by popular vote, but by the members of the United States Electoral College. That is another story.

    As to the uninformed, childish and emotional comment of A.J. McDonald, Jr.,… it is more common than expected. It is only surprising the labeling question was not “Do we want rapists, robbers and murderers and Trump supporters to vote?”

  4. I don’t believe it’s childish to make emotional decisions; we all do, in some degree or another. Rather well-practiced and respectable psychiatric doctors, including Oliver Sacks and Antonio D’Amasio have already pointed to case studies which compellingly conclude that the absence of emotional content make decisions impossible.

    That aside, it’s still a wonder to me that we allow emotional content to cloud, rather than inform our political framework. Our leaders (in the US, at least) are selected by popularity, not perspicacity. So the right to vote is troublesome: should it be universal, or do we agree that some opinions may be so contrary to life and social peace that we’re willing to suppress them, through the mechanism of denying these bad actors the right to vote? For ISIS or other groups this obvious, but the final line is vague and we can’t draw easily draw it. How should we decide who shouldn’t have the right to have their own opinions drowned out by the majority?

    But I have to thank you Mike— for taking the pragmatic approach, which I completely missed during a recent discussion with my partner on this very topic. He raised the point that allowing incarcerated felons the right to vote would open the door to allow anyone to campaign for governor on a pledge of pardoning them all. But now I wonder— if such a campaign pledge could be successful, that would mean that the greater majority of incarcerated individuals could (yes) free themselves, but this would also imply that a majority of the voting public desired the freedom of all criminals.

  5. True; while the US prison population is the largest in the world (1% of the adult population), they would generally not be able to win votes on their own. Although, there are places where the prisoners are a large part of the local population and might be able to win a local vote.

  6. Who decides what it means to be “good” or “bad”? I´m not sure it is that easy to label someone as a bad person, objectively speaking. Being bad, I believe, is someone acting against what the majority considers as proper behaviour. It´s closely connected with violating some law, which wouldn´t have existed if the majority disagreed with that law. At least in theory, and only in real democracies.

    If this line of thought is being followed, voters are the ones who define what it means to be good or bad. Thus, by eliminating someones right to vote, you´re effectively claiming to be morally superior. Which again requires us to have the ability to have some kind of ranking of different morals. I´m not sure that ranking exist, once again in an objective or general sense. You can try by using some descriptive statistics like wealth or health – but that runs into Hume´s “is-ought” problem.

    Just my immediate reflection upon reading this, which tends to imply there are some flaws. In any case an interesting article to initiate the mind.

  7. Obviously we do-there is no one else here to settle questions of morality or anything else. As with science, we need to work out the best arguments for our claims and the best case should be the one that is accepted.

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