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Should Felons Be Able to Vote?

By Rachel Gutish
12 May 2016

Many Indiana residents went to the polls on Tuesday to exercise a key privilege and responsibility granted to those fortunate enough to live in a democracy: the right to vote. However, not everyone was able to go make their voices heard. Up until April 20th, there were four states where anyone convicted of a felony was permanently disenfranchised from voting, and six where some or most convicts are banned. However, the number of states with automatic bans has now dropped to three. Terry McAuliffe, Governor of Virginia, recently signed an order that restored voting rights to 200,000 ex-cons – not in time for Virginia’s primary, but for the general election in November.

About 8.6% (one in twelve) of American adults have been convicted of a felony. While felonies are often a serious crime, including rape, murder, drug dealing, assault and theft, the only legal distinction made between a felony and a misdemeanor is the size of the punishment: a misdemeanor carries a sentence of less than a year in jail, while a felony is anything larger than that.  The difference between the two varies state-to-state, and, in some cases, the prosecutor has discretion whether the defendant is to be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.  The number of disenfranchised felons has been growing, too; there are currently 5.85 million of them, approximately 2.5% of the potential voting pool of the United States.

Some people would argue that felons do not deserve to vote, along with any of the other duties and rights that come along with being re-enfranchised. After all, a large number of them did terrible things. Many of these people are murderers, rapists, drug dealers and violent criminals. People are especially concerned since re-enfranchising these people doesn’t just mean voting; it means that they are allowed to perform jury duty and run for office, too. Virginia House of Delegates member Robert Bell (R) expressed this view when he responded to McAuliffe’s order by saying, “murder victims don’t get to sit on juries, but now the man that killed them will. A murder victim won’t get to vote, but the man that killed them will.”

Additionally, some feel that a more moderate approach might have been better, or that a distinction could have been made between the violent and non-violent offenders, repeat offenders and first-time offenders, or those that have reconciled with their victims or victim’s families and those that haven’t. Such approaches have been held up  as preferable to removing the blanket ban on felon voting and rights.

Other opponents of the action have questioned the motives of the governor. He has been a vocal supporter of Clinton’s campaign and is a former Democratic National Committee chairman. Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R) argued that the move is all about scoring points for Clinton in November: “The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe’s governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton President of the United States. This office has always been a stepping stone to a job in Hillary Clinton’s cabinet.” However, this point is undermined by the fact that McAuliffe’s Republican predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell, also tried to restore the voting rights of felons.

Many supporters of this action are hopeful that it will reduce recidivism, or relapse into criminal behavior. Supporters of this argument believe “the current corrections system stigmatizes offenders,” and that a better process for reintegration into their community, including giving them the right to vote, could reduce relapses. Statistics suggest this recidivism is an ongoing problem in our criminal justice system. Within five years of release, 76.6% of offenders are re-arrested. Seeing as the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, but 22% of its prisoners, reducing recidivism could go a long way in helping solve the problem of overcrowded prisons and bogged-down legal system. Others also make a more pragmatic argument – because offenders still have to pay taxes, and their lives can still be affected by the choices politicians make, they should still have a voice.

Should ex-felons be allowed to vote, or have any other rights and privileges of citizenship? Will restoring rights will encourage crime or reduce recidivism? Do the possibly self-interested motives of the Governor change the morality or immorality of his actions, or is it only the result that matters?

Rachel Gutish worked as a staff writer for the Prindle Post from 2015-2017. At DePauw, she was a member of the DePauw track team (pole vault, javelin), and a professional motorcycle racer / X Games medalist from Terre Haute, Indiana.
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