Outside the ballot box

When federal election results are being tallied on the evening of November 8th, the votes of nearly 6 million American citizens will be missing as a result of systematic disenfranchising laws that disqualify ex-convicts from voting. The majority of states in the U.S. enforce some penal restrictions on voting: In the most egregious cases, Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky permanently bar all people with felony convictions from voting while Alabama, Mississippi, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, and Tennessee permanently disenfranchise at least some ex-criminals. As you can see in this interactive state-by-state map of disenfranchising laws, the only states that do not restrict voting for ex-offenders are Vermont and Maine.

The practical implications of these laws are problematic for representative democracy, while the ethical grounds on which they stand call into question why they were imposed in the first place. The biggest and most obvious problem is that for those who have been convicted and are no longer incarcerated, being stripped of voting rights provides another barrier to reintegration and civic engagement already made difficult by challenges that exist in obtaining gainful employment, stable housing, and societal acceptance.

Proponents of disenfranchising laws argue that ex-criminals have forfeited their rights by engaging in activity that runs contrary to the goals of a lawfully-functioning society. Let’s put aside for a moment that not all those who are convicted and serve time are even guilty of the crimes for which they’ve been charged. This is a big problem, but we’ll assume that most who are sentenced are guilty and even so we can dismantle the arguments behind the practice of disenfranchising.

The next logical problem here is that no state strips voting rights for all types of illegal activity so instead we have a system in which some crimes lead to disenfranchisement while others don’t, even in instances when the alleged threat to the public good is nearly identical. Proponents would like to believe severity is commensurate with consequences, but the arbitrary nature of the justice system means that isn’t necessarily the case. For instance, a driver in Iowa cited thrice for operating a vehicle under the influence receives a felony sentence and is permanently barred from voting even after release. An equally unsafe driver who similarly violates traffic laws and is charged with reckless endangerment or excessive speeding while sober will not face the same disenfranchisement despite that their behavior is a similar threat to the safety of the public and can reasonably be assumed to result in the same outcome (property damage, injury or loss of life, etc).

This arbitrary lineation and disenfranchisement violates the bioethical principle of justice, described by Stanford Medical as the concept of fair distribution of resources (or in this case, consequences) among society. In the case of the drunk drivers versus reckless drivers, states make their best guess at what constitutes impairment, with the majority thresholds falling around a .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Our understanding of neurobiology, tolerance, toxicity and metabolism, however, recognizes that this is an inexact science and a nondrinker with an even lower BAC may be significantly impaired while someone with a higher tolerance is able to maintain homeostasis and normal functioning well over the .10 mark. This is an unfortunate inexactitude but realistically necessary as a preventive mechanism for deterring drunk driving.

However, the permanent disenfranchisement that happens for one but not the other makes no sense through the lens of the justice principle. It also makes no sense from a penal perspective, because disenfranchisement is unlikely to be an effective deterrent against such crimes since the consequences are often years in the future.

There are myriad reasons why a repealing of disenfranchisement laws results in a more just, equitable, and most importantly, democratic society. Permanent barring of voting is a counterproductive and oppressive practice that discourages reintegration and erects insurmountable barriers to representation that no free citizen should be without.

– Tyler