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July 27, 2016

"Give felons and prisoners the right to vote"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary in the Washington Post authored by Gideon Yaffe. Here is how it starts and ends:

This week, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vowed to sign individual orders restoring the voting rights of more than 200,000 convicted felons living in the state. His pledge followed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling that the mass clemency McAuliffe issued in April overstepped his power under the commonwealth’s constitution.  Republicans complained bitterly — think of all those Democratic votes from the many African Americans who stand to benefit! — and promised to scrutinize every order for errors.

But the GOP has it wrong.  Not only is McAuliffe doing the right thing, but also he should push further.  Prisoners, too, should be allowed to vote, no matter their crimes. While only Vermont and Maine currently grant prisoners the vote, felon disenfranchisement fundamentally undermines the democratic rationale of our criminal laws.  We cannot hold citizens to account for violating our laws while denying them a say over those laws.

In a democracy, it can fairly be said that when the state does something unpleasant to you — locks you up, forces you to pay taxes, takes your property — that injury is self-inflicted.  Since it’s your government, whatever it does to you is something you do to yourself.  And it’s your government because you have a say over what it does: You have the vote. But when the state brings down the hammer on a disenfranchised, recidivist felon, the punishment he receives is not self-inflicted.  His punishment might as well be levied by a foreign government.

Most felons — whether in prison, on probation or parole, or entirely free of state supervision — are citizens.  They should not be treated like foreigners.  First of all, they have no other geographic home: They cannot be deported, because citizens have a right to be here.  But felons also have no other political home.  Nowhere else can they live under a government whose actions are their actions. In this way, they are importantly different from immigrants, who (if they come from a place governed by the rule of law) are granted a say over the behavior of some government somewhere....

In a democracy, felon enfranchisement should not be a partisan issue.  Both Republicans and Democrats ought to be held to account for their crimes by a government whose actions they can own. We should give the vote to citizens, in or out of prison, whom we wish to hold responsible for violating laws that are not just ours but also theirs.

July 27, 2016 at 08:26 AM | Permalink


Puerto Rico -- who has more people than those states combined -- also allows prisoners to vote. Also, by "prisoners," I take that means those convicted? Many people are in prison, but are legally innocent.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 27, 2016 11:14:42 AM


"Many people are in prison, but are legally innocent."

I think you meant to say:

Many people in prison are legally guilty and factually innocent.

Legality does not equal justice any more than it equals reality.

Posted by: albeed | Jul 27, 2016 12:15:26 PM

No, I basically mean those in prison awaiting trial. They are legally innocent and in some cases factually so as well.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 27, 2016 12:41:42 PM

I think felons absolutely should be allowed the right to vote. Inmates voting is something I could at least see practical concerns with, but nothing that can't be worked around through absentee voting. I also don't think denying inmates not convicted of felonies from voting is Constitutionally valid. However, the bigger problem I still have is districts with jails and prisons using incarcerated individuals to count as part of their population for voting purposes without giving them a right to vote since I don't think there's really any plausible argument that they'd fairly represent their interests in government and instead have every incentive to keep them locked up longer.

Posted by: Erik M | Jul 27, 2016 3:20:50 PM

Once people have served their time for any so called crime their rights should be restored. "However, the bigger problem I still have is districts with jails and prisons using incarcerated individuals to count as part of their population for voting purposes without giving them a right to vote" is a criminal act in itself. Many prisoners are forced into prison by misconduct of the District Attorney Prosecutors, the prosecutors have broken their Oath of Office and should become defendants for their action.

Posted by: LC in Texas | Jul 28, 2016 3:32:39 PM


The states use census data of children and illegal aliens (or undocumented immigrants; pick your political poison) for voter districting purposes, and in fact have affected federal elections even though they can't (legally) vote. Isn't this the same thing?

Posted by: Eric Knight | Jul 29, 2016 6:01:22 PM

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