Disenfranchisement laws are seizing the constitutional right to vote from former felons

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

Upon serving their sentence, convicted felons are expected to return to their lives as functional members of society — holding jobs, maintaining property, and supporting their families. But across the country, there are state laws preventing them from voting, or limiting the extent to which they may participate in elections.

Known as disenfranchisement laws, these policies bar an estimated 6.1 million Americans from voting, based on censusing done by the Sentencing Project.

If these individuals will be impacted by the results of such elections, they should be allowed to cast their vote.

Disenfranchisement has its roots in pre-Civil War racism, and continues to disproportionately impact African Americans. 

According to former United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder, “2.2 million Black citizens — or nearly one in 13 African American adults — are banned from voting because of [disenfranchisement] laws. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, that ratio climbs to one in five.”

Given the social justice issues at stake this election season, it is a dangerous disservice to stop minorities from defending their rights by casting their vote. Disenfranchisement laws prevent convicted felons, including those who are minorities, from having a say in matters that directly impact them.

It is a constitutional right of American citizens to elect their government officials. Other basic rights are returned to felons upon release, so why should their right to vote be infringed upon?

“We let ex-convicts marry, reproduce, buy beer, own property, and drive. They don’t lose their freedom of religion, their right against self-incrimination, or their right not to have soldiers quartered in their homes in time of war,” Chicago Tribune Editor Steve Chapman said. “But in many places, the assumption is that they can’t be trusted to help choose our leaders… If we thought criminals could never be reformed, we wouldn’t let them out of prison in the first place.”

Those in favor of disenfranchisement often argue that a felon cannot be trusted to cast an informed vote based on their past transgressions against the laws of society. Such claims are baseless and contradict the fundamental purpose of the prison system: to reform criminals and allow them to regain their place in society.

Once an offender has paid their debts to society by serving jail time, they deserve the opportunity to participate in that society to the fullest extent. Felons are humans, and should be allowed the basic privileges awarded to other citizens upon their release. 

According to Northwestern University Political Science Professor Jeff Manza, this active participation in society may ensure a positive relationship between felons and the laws of their community. 

“Denying prisoners the right to vote is likely to undermine respect for the rule of law,” Manza said. “Allowing prisoners to vote, by contrast, may strengthen their social ties and commitment to the common good, thus promoting legally responsible participation in civil society.”

A just and fair government would restore felons’ rights and provide them the chance to become successful, law-abiding citizens again. 

Opposition arises only from a centuries-old fear of otherness and blatant ignorance of the shared humanity across all people. Ex-convicts are not lesser humans because of their former crimes, and thus should be awarded the same right to express their political opinion through voting. 

Featured Photo caption: Disenfranchisementlaws in certain states prohibit former felons from voting in national elections. Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.

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