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August 18, 2010

Is letting prisoners vote a "dangerous idea"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new entry at the website Big Think.  The entry is titled "Let Prisoners Vote," which is part of their "Dangerous Ideas" series, which says that "August is the month of thinking dangerously: one new radical idea a day."  Here is part of the entry:

There are currently 2.3 million disenfranchised inmates in the United States: 1.5 million are serving prison sentences of over a year; 800,000 are locked in local jails serving sentences of a year or less; and roughly 100,000 still have the right to vote, but have not made bail and cannot make it the polls while awaiting sentencing.

According to a report co-published by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system, disenfranchisement laws are "a vestige of medieval times when offenders were banished from the community and suffered 'civil death.'  Brought from Europe to the colonies, these laws gained new political salience at the end the nineteenth century when disgruntled whites in a number of Southern states adopted them and other ostensibly race-neutral voting restrictions in an effort to exclude blacks from the vote."

In much of the rest of the entry, the basic reasons why I favor allowing prisoner to vote are explained.  The entry does not explain, however, just why letting anyone vote is a "dangerous idea."  I suppose whites may have once thought it dangerous to let blacks vote, that men once thought it dangerous to let women vote, that older people once thought it dangerous to let 18-year-olds vote.  But I wonder if anyone, in retrospect, really believes that expanding the reach of the franchise within a democracy proven to be truly "dangerous."

August 18, 2010 at 06:13 PM | Permalink


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The article muddles the different, issues of barring prisoners, i.e., people currently serving prison sentences, from voting (which almost every state does) and permanently barring all persons convicted of a felony from voting, even after they have served their sentences (which relatively few states still do).

Many people who think permanent disenfranchisement is unduly harsh and would prefer a system in which released prisoners got voting rights restored (a) upon the expiration of the prisoner's sentence, (b) automatically after a set amount of time following the expiration of the sentence, or (c) as a fairly routine matter upon application by a former prisoner who has stayed out of trouble might nevertheless question the wisdom of giving, say, Charles Manson a say in who gets to be the sheriff of the county where he's incarcerated (or in who represents California in the Senate, etc.).

I don't understand the argument that it makes sense to extend the franchise to 9-year-olds to vote because your 9-year-old son is smarter than many adults. As a class, 9-year-olds must surely be less educated and less responsible than adults, even if some 9-year-olds are unquestionably smarter, better educated, and more responsible than some, or even many, adults.

Posted by: guest | Aug 18, 2010 6:43:02 PM

The political mess of today? From letting all those undesirables vote. Big mistake.

Drug cartels are already owning legitimate businesses, and donating to candidates who will promote drug dealer interests. The scum are already running the show.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 18, 2010 7:48:55 PM

I think we should let inmates vote. They say the right to vote is the right that helps you to defend all of your other rights. Prisoner retain many of their rights, we should let them seek to vindicate them in the public square. It seems especially hollow for many to complain about activist judges interceding on behalf of prisoners when we don't allow those prisoners to vote. How else should prisoner rights be articulated and fought for?

The isolation of prisons makes giving them the franchise especially important. The issues that they deal with are hidden away from the general population. How then should the general population be able to address those issues responsibly?

Posted by: dm | Aug 18, 2010 9:25:00 PM

Wonder how the inmates would vote on Prop 19 (legalizing marijuana)in California?

Posted by: Anon | Aug 18, 2010 9:30:50 PM

I agree the articles muddles things but that is a consequence of a highly muddled state of affairs with respect to voting rights of persons under supervision. I was at a meeting where the probation officers did not think their clients could vote and their clients thought they could and the district director of community corrections was caught in the middle of the row.
He had to tell his staff in front of the clients that he had been mistaken and the clients could vote. Not one of his better days considering that there were several members of the legislature in the audience.

When you consider that some of the folks in confinement are mentally ill the voting rights issue is even more muddled because it could depend on individual circumstances.

Posted by: John Neff | Aug 18, 2010 9:43:10 PM

With most prisoners being uneducated blacks, Latino(a)s, and whites, this is a ploy to increase the rolls of registered Democrats. By not saying that, they are committing a Kissinger lie. The advocates have no credibility. There is no point to debating a Kissinger liar. If one opens his mouth to lie again, just kick his ass.

If a prisoner has committed no crime for 5 years, they should be able to vote, having acquired interests that are in the mainstream.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 18, 2010 10:45:16 PM

"Wonder how the inmates would vote on Prop 19 (legalizing marijuana)in California?"

Wonder how the inmates would vote on propositions retroactively decriminalizing the acts for which they were convicted (or on propositions retroactively shortening their sentences) and requiring taxpayers to pay them large awards as compensation for the (retroactively-declared) miscarriage of justice of their conviction or incarceration?

Posted by: guest | Aug 19, 2010 9:33:47 AM

Odd, to me , the situation as opposed to the article and these comments seems remarkably clear. Either the right to vote is a fundamental right of the individual living , as a member, of a political entity or it is a mere privilege and withdrawable/withholdable.
If a right,inherent and not just a "legally created 'right', then it cannot be withheld or withdrawn. Though , as we have all seen , through history, rights can be denied or not recognized. This , though, has nothing to do with their existence. If a privilege then the debate is to what degree, under what circumstances, for what length of time it may be extended or withheld.
To conflate the issues of "civil death", "what they might vote for", contentions of class, education, etc, with the actual issues of what is and why is there a franchise to begin with is ,imho, merely to attempt to substitute personal biases and socio-political agendas for the true points in contention.
As a friend once told me , during the Bush-Gore fiasco, : "The Republic can and has survived the election of fools and crooks and demagogues, so long as the individual franchise is effective. It cannot, however, survive the making moot of the individual franchise." I must continue to endorse these concepts.
In my opinion and believe, the franchise , the universal franchise, is the corner stone of self-government. To deny it is to denote and take legal notice of the non-human status of those so denied.

Posted by: Throsso | Aug 19, 2010 10:20:14 AM

Guess what guest. If only white men could vote I wonder how they would vote on perpetuating a system that favored themseleves in every way at the expense of non-whites and women? Oh,thats right ... we dont have to wonder. We did that already.

Posted by: KRG def attny | Aug 19, 2010 12:49:08 PM

For a number of reasons mentioned in the article and some of the comments I'm not entirely in favor of prisoners voting (though I do strongly lean that way), but there is something which seems to me absolutely related to that question which no one has yet raised - the enumeration of prisoners in the census.

Currently, prisoners are counted in the district where they reside. By counting them, but preventing them from voting, do we not grant inordinate political power to the people in that district who can vote? For instance, if a politician can shake $100 per person in his district out of the federal money tree to be distributed to voters - and non-voting prisoners make up 10% of the population - then every voter stands to receive around $111. A voter in a district with no non-voting prisoners would get only the $100, putting him at an $11 disadvantage.

Does this not give an extra incentive to politicians to continue to build prisons regardless of what the public wants/needs? Does this not give them an economic incentive to continue the disenfranchisement of prisoners?

I suppose we could count non-voting prisoners as 3/5ths of a person (there is some historical precedent in the Constitution for counting some people this way, after all) but I suspect that might cause more people to wonder if the massive incarceration we practice in the US isn't simply a covert re-creation of slavery.

Posted by: Joe Power | Aug 19, 2010 2:28:43 PM

Joe Power,

In some rural districts with big prisons, I suspect it is even more skewed than your 10% number. Moreover, this distortion also provides another skewed incentive for such rural areas to lobby for prisons, even though this results in placing many, many inmates too far from their families to allow for regular visits, thus increasing the chance the prisoner will become despondent, isolated, and institutionalized... sigh.

Posted by: anon | Aug 19, 2010 5:24:17 PM

What I've never understood is how making prisoners and ex-cons feel like they have *less* at stake in their community than they might otherwise if they had the ability to vote is a good idea.

Posted by: Guy | Aug 19, 2010 6:24:52 PM


I would think that it would be enough just to have your record cleared of any marijuana charge. I still to this day have to explain a 1986 simple marijuana possession conviction that I am told will be on my record for the rest of my life.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 19, 2010 7:55:30 PM

Guy: These are all Democrats. They are all blood sucking parasites leeching on the taxpayer. Do we really want to add millions to their rolls with the stroke of a pen.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 20, 2010 9:09:52 PM

The Republicans are so funny, when the economy is good you say let’s all celebrate “Cinco de Mayo, my brothers” but when the economy is down “it’s all your fault, you damn immigrant”. When most Americans (with Latin America roots) go to the polls this November we will remember that the GOP has gone on a nationwide rant in proposing and passing several anti-immigration legislation and have continue to blame the immigrant for the flat economy or worse. We will remember who stands with us and who stands against us, so trying to stop it now is somewhat funny, but go ahead, you will not change our minds. Is does not help that the GOP has recently attacked the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Your hate made you do it, in November; you will reap what you have sown.

Posted by: Benito | Aug 23, 2010 10:04:05 PM

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