While urging Floridians to register to vote at supermarkets, at homeless shelters and at parks the past few months, I got all kinds of responses — from enthusiastic appreciation to angry rejection to studied but yielding skepticism. But no one I encountered was as passionate in their validation or condemnation of the work I was doing as those adult citizens of this country who have had the right to vote stripped away: America’s disenfranchised felons. No exhortation to vote was as persuasive as those delivered by felons to other passersby. “What do you mean it’s not important?” I watched a man I’d spoken to say to one who’d just blown me off. “If it wasn’t important, they wouldn’t have taken it away from me.” “Of course you have to vote,” I saw another man my age retort to his friend. “You’re voting for both of us.”
But the most compelling counterarguments were delivered by felons as well. “I can’t vote,” I often heard, “and I don’t want to anyway.” When pressed to explain, many of them echoed the woman who told me, “They’re all the same. None of them want me to vote, so why should I?”
She’s right to observe that Democrats have shown little more interest than Republicans in reforming, or even discussing, this country’s felon voting bans, which bar men and women who have served their time and returned to society from casting votes on that society’s future. In seven states, like Florida, the right to vote is denied permanently, unless one successfully navigates the opaque process of receiving clemency from the governor. Thirty-three states bar parolees or probationers from the voting booth. There are five million citizens who are barred from voting because they were convicted of felonies, a number that continues to mount as this country incarcerates its own citizens at rates unheard of in the industrialized world.
These disenfranchised voters, like the ones I met in Tampa, are disproportionately the underprivileged, disproportionately people of color, disproportionately those whose families are most threatened by government policies that reward the wealthy and punish the poor. And so the Republican stake in keeping them from the polls is clear, set forward flatly last year of the chairman of the Republican Party of Alabama: “we’re opposed to [restoration of their rights] because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.”
More disappointing is the complicity of Democrats in denying the vote from large and growing fractions — one in three or four of those I encountered in some neighborhoods — of their key constituencies. Cowed by the threat of seeming soft on crime, too many Democrats have proven themselves soft on democracy. And in so doing, they’re not only excluding potential voters, but alienating those voters’ neighbors and families, many of whom do not choose to vote on behalf of those who can’t but rather choose to abstain entirely in the face of seemingly bipartisan deafness to their communities’ concerns about policy and to the suppression of their right to change it.
Chief among the casualties of felon disenfranchisement is the hope for a more rational criminal justice system, as those with the most direct experience with and the clearest stake in the law are barred from reshaping it. Thus we create a self-reinforcing circle of bad policy and broken promises. We won’t achieve a sound criminal justice policy without the votes and voices of convicts. Behind much of the rhetoric leveled at felon voters as a class is a contention that their votes are invalid because their perspectives are distorted by personal experience.
Such a stance, while it appeals to our visceral fears, erodes our democratic values. These values dictate that our nation’s course is best set by all of its citizens, that a larger group of people more times than not will make better decisions for itself than any self-appointed subset. That felons bring individual experiences and interests to the voting booth does not delegitimize their participation any more than our experiences and interests disqualify ours. Rather, the systematic exclusion of a class of voters — one which overlaps with those classes already marginalized from voting — threatens the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. Whether we suspect that this class is likely to back us or our opponents, we cannot talk seriously about our commitment to democracy while barring them from the process.
The disenfranchisement of those who have served time in prison, ostensibly because criminality will make them cast worse votes, shares an ugly political pedigree with a long line of voter-cleansing tactics, from the barring of those without property — ostensibly because they’re gullible class warriors without a stake in the commonwealth — to the institution of literacy tests — ostensibly to keep out the misinformed. Each of these laws appealed to what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals referred to as “the purity of the ballot box.” The true purity of the ballot box, however, is advanced not by cleansing it of unpopular voters but rather by removing barriers between popular opinion and democratic results. Those who would advocate filtering that democracy’s voters into wheat and chaff aren’t pining for democracy at all. What they’re gesturing towards is oligarchy.
The disenfranchisement of felons from American politics is causing a steady decrease in the percentage of Americans eligible to vote. My experience this summer suggests that it also plays a sadly overlooked role in the increasing number of those eligible but choose not to vote. Proponents of bans on felon voting often argue that felons forfeited the right to vote by breaking faith with society. But in a society that enshrines democracy, the vote should be the last right the state denies, not the last one it continues to withhold. When those convicted, rightly or wrongly, of felonies serve their time without restoration of their rights, it is we, the enfranchised, who in countenancing their disenfranchisement are breaking faith with them and with our democracy.
Josh Eidelson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards.