Oct 1, 2008

several reasons felons should have the franchise

The November/December LD resolution poses a curious question: should convicted criminals have the right to vote? In his article "Liberal and Republican Arguments Against the Disenfranchisement of Felons," found in the Winter 2005 edition of Criminal Justice Ethics, Jeffrey Reiman discusses three philosophical justifications for disenfranchising felons, then knocks them down in order.
Disenfranchisement is either aimed at "preserving the purity of the ballot box," that is, protecting the electoral process from morally unsuitable voters; or it is viewed as criminals' rightful punishment; or it is viewed as ratifying the criminal's own surrender of his right to vote by violating the social contract.
1. The first reason is proffered by small-r republicans, those who believe that government is an arbitrator, inculcator, and encourager of virtue. Felons are less virtuous, goes the basic claim, so they should be denied the vote. In response, Reiman essentially establishes that criminals are, for the most part, just like everybody else. They may "act out" in certain contexts and at certain times, but so does everyone--it's just that criminals get caught. To demonstarate, Reiman cites a study that finds that
...in a recent survey of 522 professional criminologists, 25 percent admitted to committing battery, and 22 percent to burglary, at some point in their lives. Nineteen percent admitted to committing tax fraud at some point, 7 percent in the past year [Zaitzow and Robinson, "Criminologists as Criminals"].
Reiman argues, and I agree, that criminologists are probably as decent a representative sample as any. Furthermore, plenty of noncriminal behaviors aren't exactly virtuous--debauchery, adultery, gambling--but since they're not illegal, we don't disenfranchise drunks, Lotharios, and high rollers. Reiman rebuts several other reasons a republican might disenfranchise felons, but ultimately, his argument concludes with a turn:
In addition to believing that virtue is necessary for political participation, republicans also believe that political participation enhances virtue. Thus, as strong as any republican case may be for felon disenfranchisement, an equally strong republican case can be made for the value of enfranchising felons.
More on this in a bit.

2. When discussing the use of disenfranchisement as a punishment, Reiman concedes that denying a felon the vote is logically compatible with retribution. His objection is instead pragmatic.
Though it is compatible with just retribution, it is a futile form of retribution since most criminals do not even know that their crimes can result in loss of the right to vote and, given the young age at which most crimes are committed, most criminals probably do not care about voting at the time they commit their crimes. Consequently, I contend that disenfranchisement is not sensible punishment policy: it will not deter crime, nor will offenders see it as their just deserts. It is pointless as incapacitation, and it goes without saying that it serves no rehabilitative function.
3. What of contractarian arguments, then? Here Reiman first goes on the defensive, then positively argues for the franchise.
a. Defensively, Reiman claims that criminals, although they flout the social contract, still recognize its legitimacy (although the counterclaim here is that actions speak far louder than thoughts). Thus, they haven't "taken back" the social contract, much as a person who breaks a promise can still feel the sting of guilt.
b. Criminals still possess rights, even civil rights, after conviction.
When criminals are apprehended, they still have legal rights against certain forms of treatment, and they have the legal right to appeal to a judge to enforce those rights.... Moreover, when they are imprisoned, they not only retain many of their rights, they also retain their legal duties.... Though criminals violate the social contract in committing crime, we do not thereby treat them as surrendering all the rights that they have under the contract.
c. On the offense, Reiman compares disenfranchisement to a Lockean conception of slavery, but only extends that line of reasoning to ex-felons. However, from a virtue angle, Reiman is able to justify suffrage for felons and ex-felons alike.
Allowing felons to vote offers the possibility of instilling and strengthening civic virtue in them. On the other hand, by opening ourselves to fellow citizens who have gone afoul of the law, by allowing ourselves to see their normalcy and to hear from them the way society looks to them, we enlarge our own social sympathies and social knowledge, and we exercise a civic version of the virtue of charity. In addition, by granting felons and ex-felons the right to self-government to which they are entitled as human beings, we exercise and strengthen in ourselves the civic virtue of justice. Enfranchising felons can make us all better citizens.
Voting for felons: good for them, and good for everyone else.


LDn00b said...

One thing that got brought up at my debate team meeting today was whether a felon is sombody convicted of a felony, or just someone who commited one. If anyone who commits a felon at anypoint is a criminal, then couldn't an aff argue that negating would take away a huge number of people's right to vote?

Jim Anderson said...

A couple things.

1. In 14 states, ex-felons--those who've served their time--can't vote. Elsewhere, parolees / probationers are barred, or, in some, merely those in prison. At any rate, only two states have no disenfranchisement law.

... so that definition is critical.

2. A "huge number?" If 2 million is huge, and if the number of rights violations matter, then there's your (lowest estimate) "huge number," give or take.

Anonymous said...

when does a felon actually become an ex-felon and what are the rights being broken about not allowing them to vote. Also what would be the strongest points to argue for the affirmative side?

Sexy Beast said...

Isn't it true that ex-felon isn't actually a legal term?

Jim Anderson said...

sexy beast, as far as I know, it's not an official term. However, since many states restore the franchise to felons who have "paid their debt to society," "ex-felon" is a term used widely in the literature to denote that situation.

Anonymous said...


copy and paste this website and it gives insight on felony.
Basically what it is and when you regain your ability to vote.

Jim Anderson said...

anonymous, it's helpful information, as long as you are careful to note that every state disenfranchises felons differently. Some, like Maine, allow felons to vote. Others have a lifetime ban.

Parth B said...

Jim could u give us insight on some of the arguments the neg. is likely to present, and a way to counter the neg's arguments?