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October 19, 2006

The law and policy of felon disenfrachisement

Perhaps because it is really an election law issue, the law and policy of felon disenfrachisement often gets increased attention during election season.  And today I see this notable article on the topic from Salon.  Here is a taste:

Across the U.S., nearly 4 million people with felony convictions, who are out of prison, have no say in their own government, and won't be going to the polls on Nov. 7.  Their lost votes could make a decisive difference in close Senate and House races this fall, especially in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, where, unlike most states, felons, even after serving their time, never regain the right to vote.  Among the races that could be affected are Virginia Sen. George Allen's attempt to retain his Senate seat, despite his recently exposed history of using racial slurs, and the House race for Kentucky District 3, where polls now show Republican Anne Northup essentially tied in her attempts to keep her seat from challenger Democrat John Yarmuth.

I often think of The Sentencing Project as the to-go place for coverage of this issue.  And there I see this intriguing announcement of "stipends to produce research designed to broaden the analysis and understanding of the dynamics of felony disenfranchisement."

October 19, 2006 at 12:00 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 19, 2006 1:57:50 PM


The bleeding hearts whine about felon disenfranchisement and all those meanie Republicans who get elected as a result. Perhaps the bleeding hearts should be more focused on felons earning their right to participate by making real restitution to their victims. Also, why should a rapist's vote count just as a rape victim, and why should a murderer ever get to vote again? In addition, who wants a criminal element as a constituency?

Posted by: Sean O'Brien | Oct 19, 2006 1:49:24 PM

What does voting have to do with committing crimes? Losing the right to vote isn't a deterrance in any way - anyone ever hear from a criminal who said, "if only I knew that I wouldn't be able to vote?" People convicted of felonies are citizens and citizens should be able to vote. It's that simple.

Posted by: Anonymous | Oct 19, 2006 1:56:41 PM

Who wants a criminal element as a constituency? Are you kidding? In what fantasy world do you live where there are no criminals or people who make mistakes? The criminal element has ALWAYS been part of a constituency, but it's usually the Republican pedophile candidate himself.

Sounds like you live in another Repugnican fantasy world, where every accused is guilty, and every guilty person receives the max.

Posted by: | Oct 19, 2006 2:28:46 PM

Why should a stupid person's vote count just as much as a smart person's?

Posted by: anon | Oct 19, 2006 2:31:29 PM

Democrats appear to be certain that the thug vote will go overwhelmingly for them. Law-abiding people should ponder why.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 19, 2006 2:51:07 PM

By "thug vote" I assume you mean convicted felons, like Jamie Olis, Jeffrey Skilling, Marvin Warner, Ivan Boeske and the like.

Posted by: | Oct 19, 2006 3:14:29 PM

In April, a book on this subject came out: "Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to The White House." The author, Sasha Abramsky, is quoted in the Salon article.


Posted by: SJ | Oct 19, 2006 3:19:43 PM

For the moment, let's leave aside the question of what party they would vote for.

When a felon is released from prison, the whole point is — or ought to be — making them productive members of society. Otherwise, Life Without Parole ought to be the sentence for every crime.

If you think a convict can become a productive part of society, you should give them the right to vote. If you think otherwise, then the sentence should be Life Without Parole.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Oct 19, 2006 3:23:50 PM

I think Mr. Scheidegger's point is correct. The "why" is a more interesting question than who they'd vote for. I'm not sure precisely what the answer is, but I'm going to start pondering.

I think Mr. Shepherd draws a false dichotomy between full reinstatement of rights upon release and life without parole. People can be "productive" without voting, and lots of people on probation are subject to restrictions on what they can do. Usually those restrictions are related to the danger people pose to society (e.g. child molesters have to stay away from schools, violent people can't drink or possess firearms, etc), but not always.

As I understand it, the point of disenfranchisement is certainly not deterrent. As "anonymous" notes, if you're charged with a felony, losing your right to vote is probably the least of your worries, and it's hard to say with a straight face that the additional sanction of disenfranchisement has prevented any crimes. What I'm not entirely sure about is the extent to which it is either retributive or consequential.

I can see the retributive argument: you broke the social contract, so society no longer owes you full membership privileges.

The consequentialist argument must be that people who have demonstrated a certain level of lack of respect for the law cannot be trusted to participate in making it.

Posted by: WB | Oct 19, 2006 3:54:35 PM

I agree with WB on the "false dichotomy." Voting rights need not automatically be restored immediately upon release. A felon's vote could be restored upon his demonstrating that he has become a productive member of society by staying clean for a certain period of time. A requirement to obtain gainful employment might also be added.

Further, this debate is not solely about "former" felons who have done their time and been released. In the Hayden/Muntaqim cases, the argument was that convicted murderers had the right to vote while still in prison.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 19, 2006 4:07:11 PM

It's true that there are many collateral consequences that attach to a conviction past completion of the sentence. But generally, they're somehow related to the original offense, e.g., a corrupt lawyer loses his law license.

Kent Scheidegger's proposal sounds awfully bureaucratic. The last thing we need is a new government entity to track which felons have completed some arbitrary set of post-release requirements before they may have their voting rights restored.

The "consequentialist argument" seems awfully weak (people who have demonstrated a certain level of lack of respect for the law cannot be trusted to participate in making it). Felons would never be a high enough percentage of the electorate to actually be called "law makers" in any meaningful sense.

The "retributive argument" fails for the same reason the deterrent argument does — in relation to the sentences we already impose, disenfranchisement is just another needle atop the haystack.

What makes the most sense to me is that, having exacted what is already a pretty hefty penalty, we should actually WANT these people to become fully re-integrated in society, since the cost of their NOT becoming re-integrated is significant.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Oct 19, 2006 4:46:07 PM

Not committing any more crimes is an "arbitrary requirement"? Well, I'll just leave it at that.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 19, 2006 5:01:25 PM

Retribution is a moral notion, and is about punishing criminals because they "deserve" it. It has nothing to do with practical marginal effects... if I'm remembering law school correctly.

Mr. Shepherd, what exactly is the cost of not "reintegrating" felons? Since you insist that it's a needle atop a haystack, what difference should it make toward their reintegration? It seems to me that the main difficulty reintegrating felons has very little to do with voting rights, and more to do with the fact that people usually emerge from prison with no money, no recent relevant work experience, and warped social sensibilities and have a lot of trouble getting hired.

I think ex-felons are more interested, for the most part, in economic reintegration, and could care less, by-and-large, about the ability to vote.

Posted by: WB | Oct 19, 2006 5:14:58 PM

The bleeding hearts are at it again. Of course felons should forever lose their right to vote. That's the least of it. As pointed out, they have broken the social contract. Prison is only one of the many consequences of that breach: felons should lose the right to live among us at all. Separate reservations must be set apart for all felons to live--a variation of the "gated community" as it were.

Posted by: Michael Levine | Oct 19, 2006 6:54:54 PM

So who benefits from the felon losing the right to vote? Is being disenfranchised somehow constructive for anybody? So at the rate we are going America will be comprised of illegal aliens, recent immigrants, and felons, perhaps 25 percent of the adult population, that is disenfranchised. Again, who benefits from that? Have you prima donas never made a mistake? Is the notion of forgiveness, repentence, renewal not in your vocabulary? Gentlemen, do you like the Mets or Cards tonight?

Posted by: Major Goodbar | Oct 19, 2006 8:03:51 PM

I'm surprised that Kent Scheidegger proposes a new government function to decide which felons will have their voting rights restored. From the tenor of his posts, I take him to be conservative, and conservatives usually favor a smaller government.

To answer Kent's question, the proposed requirements a felon must satisfy to get his voting rights restored do seem arbitrary. For instance, if there's a requirement to not re-offend, how long should it be? Is five years the right amount of time? Why not two? Why not ten?

If there's a requirement to be gainfully employed, what is "gainful"? For how long? If someone works for nine months, is unemployed for three, then works for six more, has he been gainfully employed? Or not?

This new government department that Scheidegger is proposing will have its hands full. I suppose that the same people proposing this new expansion of the government will also fail to find any way to pay for it.

"I think ex-felons are more interested, for the most part, in economic reintegration, and could care less, by-and-large, about the ability to vote."

I agree with this 100%. About the last thing on a released felon's mind is, "Gee, can I vote now?" But presumably, we should have an interest in re-integrating these people into the social fabric — otherwise, why are we releasing them?

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Oct 20, 2006 8:39:54 AM

I am a Registered Nurse, a student and a convicted felon. I was recently given restoration of my civil rights which enabled me to become a licensed professional. I was very thankful for this process as it will allow me to "economically reintegrate". I am a single parent with no means of support. I was refused help which is available to the average low-income person such as food stamps because of my felony conviction. Fortunately, the Federal Government decided to fund my education and I just became licensed to practice nursing in order that I may support myself and my child and become a productive citizen again. I am so thankful for the second chance. If I had not had my civil rights restored, this would have not been possible. I am yet to overcome my greatest challenge; finding someone to hire a convicted felon but I remain positive. I never thought I would be in a situation such as this but I do thank God everyday for the people that continues to believe that people can change.

Posted by: Kyra | Oct 26, 2006 11:39:15 PM

I, too, am a convicted felon. In 1993 I was convicted of my 3rd DWI. Shortly after that conviction I realized that I HAD to turn my life around or I would end up in prison. I attended college, graduated an worked for 7 years as an radiology professional. I left that job because there was no room for advancement as I was not in the "click".

Since then, 4 years, I have been unable to find a job in the healthcare field regardless of my work history. Prior to 9/11 background checks were mostly unheard of.

"Paying one's debt" is only a convenience thing for society. I completed my 2 years of probation which was handed down by the courts. Yet, 13 years later I'm still paying for it.

I can't believe "society" would rather me re-offend than give me an opportunity to contribute to society as I had been doing.

But then again, prisoner's are afforded 3 meals a day (better than I on a good day), a roof over their heads (I'm weeks from being foreclosed out of a home), and a constitutional right to healthcare (while I worry how to pay for my next doctors' office visit). Sounds appealing the more I think about it.

Taxpayers should be livid about me using up their taxes to fund my living and recreational expenses instead of letting me earn and pay them myself.
But whatever, I say. I tried to find work but to no avail.

Pardons in this state are rarely issued regardless of rehabilitation or time elapsed since crime. Last year, out of 1200 applications, only 4% were recommended but still sit on the Governor's desk waiting a signature.

Not all felons are bad people, not all felons want to reoffend. By not allowing me to fend for myself only confirms society's gross "need" to fund my Life. I will enjoy it for as long as they want me to.

Alot of society "gets off" on being able to shun and badmouth those with felony records.

I hope and pray they never have to walk in those shoes, it's not pretty even if you rehabilitate yourself, it won't matter to the straight and narrow walkers.

If I survive this thing I will welcome those who shunned me or turned their backs on me with open arms.

May the God of Your choice Bless You...

Posted by: t | Dec 5, 2006 9:33:35 PM

I am a convicted felon myself. I am also a single mother of two, who works full-time as a medical assistant and attends college full-time to become an Registered Nurse. What I am concerned about is if I finish college, will I be able to practice Nursing or will they deny me when I try to get my license. Who do I contact about this?

Posted by: Keyuana | Dec 31, 2006 2:31:24 AM

I am slightly offended by some of the things which I have read on this board. I myself am a convicted felon. There were a number of referances to "Thug vote", as well as a referance "Why should a stupid person's vote count just as much as a smart person's?". These referances are unfair judgements of people with whome you have no aquantance. In fact I am not in any way dumb. I am also not a thug. In fact the crime in which I was convicted of would have been baffling to most of the poeple on this board. I am a full time college student now with a 3.0 GPA. Yes I made a mistake in my life however that shouldn't be the absolute end to my right to vote. I believe that once a sentance is served and all accompaning parole or probation served out without incident there should be a way for a citizen to re-establish their right to vote. Just because I made a mistake in life does not mean my voice shouldnt be heard or count just as much as the next man/woman.

Posted by: Mike | Jan 16, 2007 12:39:21 PM

I'm retired California Dept of Corrections of 20 yrs. If our society states after a felon has served his time he has paid his dues to society, why can't they vote? They are still citizens. So if they can't vote why not just say "you're a felon forever...you will NEVER pay your dues to society and you're no longer a citizen either." Our country is too judgemental & Arogant. What about the Murders and rapist that vote anyway that were'nt caught and that secret sicky next door that votes in every election?

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Posted by: insurance quotes | Apr 10, 2007 7:15:59 AM

Hello, I am currently a student receiving my ASSAHCA, I feel that there are those in the United States that have committed crimes that they have not admitted to, also have not been caught for. But when a person has been convicted, sentenced and have served their time they have just as much right to a new life as an illegal immigrant, or legal immigrant with a green card. When are we going to stop this foolishness. There are those that are encorrageable but we are not God to judge who is condemned for life and who is not. What about those that have have had abortions? the only difference here is this murder is legal, but in the eyes of God murder is murder, sin is sin. And oh.., I am an ex-felon saved by Grace and a natural born citizen of the United States.

Posted by: shelton | May 15, 2008 9:01:02 PM

I am a covicted felon. I felt I did nothing wrong. I was protecting my home from some people that I didnt even know. My front door was kicked in and I called the police and told them to hurry up. I went to my safe, got my guns and all hell broke loose. I was the one that went to jail. I didn't kill anyone. But because I had guns and chase them back outside my home. I was convicted. I want to be a Nurse soon but I know that I will face a lot of BS because of this. I will go through the whole class. I will pass and then be told that I can't get a license. I'm still determined to make it. This record chasses me every where I go. No matter if its been 5 years. People only look at the word FELONY. I am not a violent person but that's the picture painted of me when I was convicted. When you look at my record I still look like the worst person in the World. My rights to vote have been restored and everything else except having a firearm. What can I do to become a Nurse. That's my passionate to care for people. What can I do. It looks like i am messed up for life and stuck in one rim. I as granted a CNA license b4 i became a felon who served 5 days in jail. I am free but not really. Jobs are hard to find when you have been convicted. What can do?

Posted by: Caring Person | Nov 27, 2008 2:56:19 AM

I do believe that it is a good thing for felons to have several of their rights revoked. I am not a felon but merely another citizen of this great country. However, I do believe that the system sometimes makes mistakes as in the person who was defending their home and got sent to jail for it. But I also believe that people can change. From my understanding of it, some states return the right to vote as soon as all of the sentence is carried out, some states never revoke the right and in others you have to go in front of a judge to have your rights restored.
I am confused about how getting a third DUI means that you can't own a gun any longer, though. But I agree that there needs to be some method to return some or all of the rights to a person after they have done their time. I've not run into this personally but I do know people with felony convictions who have a very hard time getting jobs. That is something that I believe should have a statute of limitations type effect as well. If you stay clean then at some point a civilian background check should come up clean. And yes, I am a conservative. I can't really say I'm Republican because it seems they have sold out their values and are running down the path of socialism with the democrats.

Posted by: Chris | Feb 25, 2009 9:39:10 PM

I am a Ex felon who is a college student with a 3.1 GPA. To tell you the truth I do feel as if ex- felons should have the same right as anyone else. If you are convicted of a crime you serve your time, and are told that do not let this stop you from having a normal life, but if that is the fact why is it that you are limited to what you can do? America was stolen from Native Americans who were slaughtered for land. They went into Iraq claiming it to be about Weapons of mass destruction, but really what did they find??? all a sudden in Saudi Arabia they happen to stumble across gold mines that were never touched. Is that not a crime? It is okay though for politicians to get caught on camera beating women and get away with it but not the average person. Slavery in America...did slave owners get convicted of felonies??? the government sees people as statistics thats it. They have a chart of people that get arrested and after that one conviction... your bound to get another one because society bars you from everything else, it is so pathetic. Why is it that people with money get special privelages when it comes to the law? Martha Stewart commited a huge crime, and how long did she serve??? Chris Brown and Rihanna? Lindsey Lohan??? This country is pathetic. So to be honest who cares about voting? because it makes no difference because a democracy is supose to be 50/50 but why does it not feel that way?? what about the government scrapping the articles of confediration when it stated the people had more power than the government??? I dont let society judge me, why because all those who judge are hipocrits and Karma is a B*tch

Posted by: shan | Jul 9, 2010 10:30:14 PM

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