My essay on felons and voting received an interesting comment from A.J. McDonald, Jr. He raised a concern about having rapists, robbers and murders voting. One initial reply is that there are many other types of felonies, a significant number of which are non-violent felonies. As such, any discussion of felons and voting needs to consider not just the worst felonies, but all the felonies on the books. And, in the United States, there are many on the books. That said, I will address the specific concern about felons convicted of rape, robbery and murder.
On the face of it, it is natural to have an immediate emotional reaction to the idea of rapists, robbers and murderers voting. After all, these are presumably very bad people and it offensive to think of them exercising the same fundamental right as other citizens. While this reaction is natural, it is generally unwise to try to settle complex moral questions by appealing to an immediate emotional reaction—although calm deliberation might end up in the same place as fiery emotion. I will begin by considering arguments for disenfranchising such felons.
The most plausible argument, given my view that voting rights are foundational rights in a democratic state, is that such crimes warrant removing or at least suspending a person’s status as a citizen. After all, when a person is justly convicted of rape, murder or robbery they are justly punished by suspension of their liberty. In some cases, they are punished by death. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that if the right to liberty (and even life) can be suspended, then the right to vote can be suspended as well. I certainly see the appeal here. However, I think there is a counter to this reasoning.
Punishment by imprisonment is generally aimed at three goals. The first is to protect the public from the criminal by removing him from society and to serve as a deterrent to others. This could be used to justify taking away the right to vote by arguing that felons are likely to vote in ways that would harm society. The easy and obvious reply is that there seems to be little reason to think that felons could do harm through voting. Or any more harm than non-felon voters. For felons to do real harm through voting, there would need to be harmful choices and these would need to be choices that felons would pick because they are felons and they would need to be able to win that vote It could be claimed that, for example, there might be a vote on reducing prison sentences and the felons would vote in their interest to the detriment of others. While this is possible, it seems unlikely that the felons would be able to win the vote on their own. There is also the obvious counter that non-felons are likely to vote in harmful ways as well—as the history of voting shows. As such, denying felons the vote to protect the public from harm is not a reasonable justification. If there are things being voted for that could do serious harm, then the danger lies with those who got such things on the ballot and not with felons who might vote for it.
The second is the actual punishment, which is typically justified in terms of retribution. This does have some appeal as a justification, assuming that the felon wants to vote and regards being denied the vote as a harm. However, most Americans do not vote—so it is not much of a punishment. There is also the question of whether the denial of the right to vote is a suitable punishment for a crime. Punishments should not simply be tossed onto a crime—they should fit. While paying restitution would fit for a robbery, being denied the right to vote would not seem to fit.
The third is rehabilitation; the prisoner is supposed to be reformed so he can be returned to society (assuming the sentence is not death or life). Denying voting rights would seem to have the opposite effect—the person would be even more disconnected from society. As such, this would not justify removal of the voting rights.
Because of these considerations, even rapists, murderers and robbers should not lose their right to vote. I do agree, as argued in my previous essay, that crimes that are effectively rejections of the criminal’s citizenship (like rebellion and treason) would warrant stripping a person of citizenship and the right to vote. Other crimes, even awful ones, would not suffice to strip away citizenship.
Another approach is to make the case that rapists, murderers and robbers are morally bad or bad decision makers and should be denied the right to vote on moral grounds. While it is true that rapists, murderers and robbers are generally very bad people, the right to vote is not grounded in being a good person (or even just not being bad) or making good (or at least not bad) decisions. While it might seem appealing to have moral and competency tests for voting, there is the obvious problem that many voters would fail such tests. Many politicians would also fail the tests as well.
It could be countered that the only test that would be used is the legal test of whether or not a person is convicted of a felony. While obviously imperfect, it could be argued that those convicted are probably guilty and probably bad people and thus should not be voting. While it is true that some innocent people will be convicted and denied the right to vote and also true that many bad people will be able to avoid convictions, this is acceptable.
A reply to this is to inquire as to why such a moral standard should be used in regards to the right to vote. After all, the right to vote (as I have argued before) is not predicated on moral goodness or competence. It is based on being a citizen, good or bad. As such, any crime that does not justly remove a citizen’s status as a citizen would not warrant removing the right to vote. Yes, this does entail that rapists, murders and robbers should retain the right to vote. This might strike some as offensive or disgusting, but these people remain citizens. If this is too offensive, then such crimes would need to be recast as acts of treason that strip away citizenship. This seems excessive. And there is the fact that there are always awful people voting—they just have not been caught or got away with their awfulness or are clever and connected enough to ensure that the awful things they do are not considered felonies or even crimes. I am just as comfortable allowing a robber to vote as I am to allow Trump and Hillary to vote in their own election.