Night of the Civil Dead

November 11th, 2005

Why Felon Disenfranchisement Must End

by Tom Kerr
Why should the same group of people who themselves care very little about voting (half of all eligible voters between 18- and 24-years-old even bothered to register in 2004, and less than half of those voters-46.7 percent-managed to drag themselves out to vote) care a whit about the voting rights of felons?

Most won’t — that’s a fact. But the 22 percent of college-age citizens who actually vote might very well be persuaded to feel some measure of solidarity with another group of relatively powerless people for whom the right to vote means a great deal.

While our world-record-setting incarceration rates prove that most Americans are more than happy at the prospect of locking up felons and “throwing away the key,” the fact is that approximately 95 percent of all felons are released back into our communities, where we should all hope they will live among us peacefully, as rehabilitated citizens and neighbors, not as the “civic dead.”

Putting aside the fact that conditions of confinement in the U.S. are generally dehumanizing, nothing says “F— You” to someone quite like denying them the right to cast a vote for the people who make and enforce the laws and public policy that everyone must follow. A vote is the simplest, surest and most powerful sign of inclusion in civic life.

Withhold the vote in a democracy, withhold dignity and respect. African Americans understood it (Amendment XV), women understood it (Amendment XIX), and 18-year-old citizens understood it (Amendment XXVI). People who have broken the law and are serving, or have served, their time understand it too (Where is their amendment?).

As with abortion prior to Roe v. Wade, no federal law exists to regularize, much less ensure, voting rights for felons. Consequently, the states all have different laws pertaining to felon enfranchisement.  Forty-eight states prohibit prisoners from voting. Twenty-nine states ban felons on probation from the voting booth.  Thirty-six states prevent parolees from casting a ballot.  And 15 states withhold the vote from convicts who have done all their time — paid their entire debt to society.

According to Human Rights Watch, which rightly calls the disparate state laws a “crazy quilt” of legislation, 3.9 million adults are currently or permanently disenfranchised as a result of a felony conviction.  This amounts to about 2 percent of the eligible voting population, a higher proportion by far than any other democratic nation on earth (not that the U.S. bothers much over such unfavorable contrasts).

Coinciding with the disproportionate rates at which black men are incarcerated and sentenced to death, the number of black men disenfranchised by voting rights’ restrictions placed on felons is a staggering 1.4 million, or 13 percent of the black adult male population.  “Jim Crow Redux” is how the Prison Policy Initiative describes this racist aspect of felony disenfranchisement.

But it’s not only about numbers, or even principally about race. It’s about keeping the riff-raff out of the club, whether the riff-raff happen to be black, women, young adults or people who have broken the law. It’s about us reducing exposure to them by controlling, as much as possible, their access to power, even the personal power of voting. It’s also about shaming and humiliating people we regard as less fully human, less fully civilized (than us).

Many poor, marginalized and/or disenfranchised people pun on the concept of American criminal justice by spelling the latter word “just us,” thereby underscoring the many ways in which laws have been and continue, very often, to be written in favor of those who do the writing. “Just us” highlights the fact that money and connections go a long way to protecting some people from unfettered prosecution and/or the full punitive consequences of their illegal actions.

Law-breakers should of course pay their debt to society, but that debt need not and should not include the medieval and gratuitous practice of “civil death.” As Human Rights Watch observes, “In the late twentieth century, the laws have no discernible legitimate purpose. Deprivation of the right to vote is not an inherent or necessary aspect of criminal punishment, nor does it promote the reintegration of offenders into lawful society.”

Whether we vote or not, all democratic citizens must insist on the voting rights of our fellow citizens, even those convicted of breaking the law. Further swelling the ranks of the civilly dead living among us seems like no option at all, for us or them.


Tom Kerr is a writing professor who feels that felons should own more franchises. Email him at tkerr@ithaca.edu.

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