A crime against criminals
Convicts who have served their sentences should be given the right to vote, in order to preserve the essence of democracy
The right to vote has been a fundamental part of the American cultural and political system. Voting is a defining characteristics of a democratic society. Yet, throughout American history, we have failed to provide the right to vote to every individual. African-Americans fought for the right, as did women. Now, former felons too must fight for the right to vote. In fact, felon disenfranchisement reflects the government’s failure again to ensure that the basic rights of its constituents are protected.
Currently, 5.85 million people are disenfranchised because of felony convictions. In Virginia specifically, there are approximately 350,000 felons disenfranchised. The particular laws regarding felony disenfranchisement vary state by state. Some states such as Virginia have lifelong disenfranchisement while states such as Vermont never disenfranchise felons, even while imprisoned. Furthermore, in some states felons can regain their right to vote by appealing to the Governor (Virginia), while in other states felons regain their voting rights after serving their time.
While it is understandable to take away a felon’s voting right while he is imprisoned, it makes less sense for him to not regain his right to vote after he has served time. Disenfranchisement becomes a constant reminder for felons of their past deeds, and prevents them from moving on with their lives. It also prevents those individuals from fully reintegrating into a democratic society, for a democratic society is characterized by the right to vote. This isolation becomes an additional burden for felons who are already stigmatized by society for their crimes. Furthermore, less than 20 percent of felony convictions are violent. Most felony convictions are actually due to property and drug offenses. This is not to say that crimes like burglary should be condoned. And I am under no circumstances justifying the behavior of felons, but for them to be disenfranchised after they have paid for their crimes is unjustified.
Disenfranchisement can have political consequences as well. In some states like Florida, over a million ex-felons are disenfranchised as of 2010, which is significant enough to skew the results of a national election. As a result, one must question the validity and accuracy of an election where a significant part of the population is underrepresented.
Moreover, regardless of a felon’s past, he still has to reside under the authority of the same government as everyone else after serving his prison term. Therefore, he still deserves the right to have a voice in electing government officials.
In states such as Virginia, felons can apply for clemency. Yet when there are 350,000 felons in Virginia, restoring the rights of approximately 4,000 is practically insignificant. “I believe the commission of a crime must have a tough and just consequence,” Gov. Bob McDonnell said. “I also believe that once an offender has paid his debt to society, he deserves a second chance. It’s good government to restore ex-offenders to society and encourage them to become law-abiding members of society again.” I find it interesting, however, that if it is “good government” to enfranchise felons, why have not all felons simply been franchised by law rather than on a case by case basis?
Instead of returning an ex-felon’s voting rights after a certain amount of time has elapsed, or offering clemency, the best action would be to ensure simply that felons regain their right to vote immediately after they have completed their prison sentence. As a nation, we preach democratic ideals both within the nation and abroad, yet sadly, in reality we fail to live up to what we preach. Ex-felons are still a part of society, and it is time we treat them as such.
Fariha Kabir’s column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.