The disenfranchisement of felons is paving the way for America’s democratic backsliding. Repealing these undemocratic laws will help to reinvigorate the American electorate’s investment in democracy.
American democracy has been under threat in recent years. The Republican Party has gerrymandered, imposed voting restrictions, and rejected the results of a free and fair election. Meanwhile, many Americans feel no urgency to defend their democracy against these attacks. For example, 48% of young Americans believe that democracy intrinsically fails to serve the people.
Felon disenfranchisement laws generate additional apathy by disenfranchising large swaths of the electorate and causing American felons to lose their faith in democracy as well. While these laws vary from state to state, most states prevent felons from voting even after they have left prison. A 2022 report estimated that 4.6 million Americans—a sizable 2% of the US’s voting-age population—cannot vote due to a felony conviction. In certain states, the percentage is even higher. In Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, for example, over 7% of adults cannot vote because of felon disenfranchisement. Due to the discriminatory impacts of the criminal justice system, this disenfranchisement also contributes to systemic racism. According to that same 2022 report, these laws disenfranchise African Americans at 3.5 times the rate of non-African Americans. Nationally, one in 19 otherwise eligible African American voters have lost their suffrage, and within several southern states, these laws disenfranchise a staggering one in 10 African Americans. Thus, rather than affecting only a negligible portion of voters, felon disenfranchisement is an undeniable barrier to equal suffrage.
As a result, these laws cause American felons to increasingly disfavor democracy. Indeed, in research surveys, many former felons have questioned the legitimacy of American democracy due to their inability to participate in it. As antidemocratic forces, such as voter suppression and gerrymandering, threaten American democracy, felon disenfranchisement laws cause felons to resent their democracy rather than protect it.
Restoring felons’ voting rights is an essential step for combatting this resentment. Research has shown that being able to vote causes former felons to display increased prosocial behavior. By contrast, legal scholarship has illustrated that former felons who cannot vote are more likely to continue committing crimes. More relevantly, one sample of felons who regained their voting rights experienced a statistically significant increase in their sense of political efficacy, or their belief that American democracy is responsive to their votes. Put simply, regaining the right to vote inspires former felons to care more about their community and their democracy.
Indeed, in democratic countries that do not automatically disenfranchise all felons, felons earnestly care about the electoral process. In France, where some inmates can even cast ballots at normal polling locations, felons actively educate themselves about candidates and participate in elections. In one French cell block, over half of the eligible inmates have registered to vote, and many of them report feeling a greater sense of inclusion within their country.
Some may oppose or feel indifferent toward the restoration of felons’ voting rights by arguing that felons will not vote even if they have the right to do so. These opponents may point to research showing that, on average, former felons who can actually vote do so at far lower rates than the rest of the electorate. Indeed, one researcher found that only 5% of eligible ex-felons in one New York county voted in the 2004 and 2005 elections, while the county’s overall voter turnout ranged from 39.2% to 62.9%. This researcher thus concluded that most ex-felons simply must not care that much about voting. Other researchers drew the same conclusion in their more recent 2022 study, which documented low voter turnout among felons in Maine and Vermont, where even imprisoned felons can cast ballots. This interpretation of the data assumes, therefore, that felon disenfranchisement laws do little to threaten American democracy in actuality, since most felons wouldn’t vote even if they had the opportunity.
But this interpretation ignores the ways that these laws inherently confuse and discourage eligible ex-felons from voting. This is because these laws vary widely in each state. Some states permanently disenfranchise former felons, other states only disenfranchise imprisoned felons, and still other other states disincentivize former felons from voting by forcing them to navigate excessive bureaucratic red tape in order to regain their suffrage. Hence, scholars have found that, even when ex-felons legally regain their ability to vote, many of them are still confused about whether they can actually vote. Some eligible ex-felons avoid voting altogether, since the consequence of trying to vote if they are not legally allowed to could be even more imprisonment. It is no wonder, then, that voting rates among former felons are so low. Felon disenfranchisement laws therefore create an electoral process that unfairly confuses this segment of society, leading to elections that may be legally free but that are, in effect, unfair. These laws thus undermine one of the core requirements of democracy.
This makes it clear that the only solution is for all felons to retain their right to vote. This privilege cannot only apply to certain felons in certain states; otherwise, many felons will continue to resent American democracy and misunderstand whether they can legally participate in it. Instead, uniformly restoring felons’ voting rights will increase these Americans’ investment in democracy and thereby improve the legitimacy and equality of America’s electoral system.