Political theorist Robert Dahl argues that one of the characteristics of democracy is “the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals” . The right to vote is necessary to for all citizens to be able to make these preferences, indicate them to the government, and to have them weighed equally in the government’s decisions. However, due to felony disenfranchisement in the United States, millions do not have the ability to hold the government accountable to the people. Therefore, felony disenfranchisement weakens democracy in the United States.
As of 2016, 6.1 million Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction. And felony disenfranchisement policies have disproportionate impact on communities of color: 1 out of every 13 African Americans has lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement versus 1 in every 56 non-black voters. In all but two states, individuals convicted of a felony are ineligible to vote while in prison, on parole, or on probation. Before November 2018, three states in the United States had laws that did not allow people with felony records to ever be able to vote. Florida’s permanent disenfranchisement of all people with felony convictions has been in the news recently because nearly 65 percent of Floridian voters, more than five million votes, voted via a ballot initiative to restore the voting rights of those with felony convictions who have served their sentences, as long as the crime committed was not murder or a sex offense. This is significant because as of 2018 1.4 million Floridians, and specifically one in four black Floridians, did not have the right to vote because of felony convictions. Given that Florida is the nation’s largest presidential battleground state and a swing-state, the political ramifications of adding hundreds of thousands of people to the Florida voter rolls are large. Considering that in the 2018 midterm election, Florida’s governor and senate’s races both were so closely contested that their results required recounts, adding new voter populations can change Florida’s politics.
But although this ballot initiative was meant to be self-executing, once again, these people’s right to vote was again put into question after Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill to limit the restoration of felon voting rights. This bill requires people with felony convictions to pay any court costs, fines or fees before their sentence can be considered “complete” and their rights can be restored. Since many people with felony convictions come from underprivileged backgrounds, putting a monetary restriction on when these people can vote creates a barrier to voter registration. Critics of this bill say that this restriction is effectively a modern-day poll tax, which in the past has been used to limit the voting rights of African Americans.
Some proponents of felony disenfranchisement may argue that someone who has been convicted of a felony has shown a lack of regard or respect for the law, and therefore is incapable of voting on issues pertaining the law. However this rhetoric of saying that some people should not be able to vote because of their criminal past masks the anti-democratic nature of felony disenfranchisement. Claims of making the democratic process only pertain people who respect the law do not take into account the racist and targeted history of felony disenfranchisement laws. While it may not be unreasonable to say that some people cannot vote, such as non-citizens or children, these electoral barriers to entry set restrictions on the ability of individuals and certain populations to obtain legislative representation. Ozan Varol states that electoral laws, specifically laws that create electoral barriers to entry, are one of the main devices for stealth authoritarianism, which he defines as “the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends” . These laws were created after slavery was abolished, when white political elites sought to decrease the power of newly freed slaves. Further, politicians specifically tailored these disenfranchisement laws to only target crimes that were believed to be disproportionately committed by black people. Therefore, the sole objective was to limit the political power of African Americans.
Although states have been able to disenfranchise millions of Americans because they did so through legal means, it is important for people to be aware of this issue and to speak out against it. Voting is a key mechanism of democracy and people are facing extreme barriers to accessing their right to vote.
- Dahl, Robert. “Democratization and Public Opposition.” In Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, 1-16. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1972.
- Ozan O. Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1673-1742