Should felons have the right to vote?

Left: Carly Fitzgerald, a sophomore at St. Olaf College
Right: Ashton Gergen, a junior at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

This is an occasional college debate series hosted by Today’s Question where we invite debate clubs to frame, guide and debate the day’s discussion question in the comments. Positions taken by the debaters don’t necessarily reflect their views. As always, personal attacks aren’t allowed in this space. The comment thread continues to be open to all. Join in!

The Minnesota Senate voted this year to restore the voting rights of convicted felons following their release, even if they are on parole or probation. Felons are still unable to vote while incarcerated, but the debate continues on whether they can be trusted with the right to vote.

Defending the argument is Carly Fitzgerald, a sophomore at St. Olaf College majoring in psychology and political science.​​

Currently in Minnesota there are around 57,000 felons, about 47,000 of which cannot vote because they are either in prison, on probation, or on parole. This means a large portion of felons in the state currently do not have access to voting rights. But this situation is neither representative of the core values of the country, nor conducive to reducing crime and recidivism.

First, we need to recognize that felons aren’t necessarily villains – some may be victims themselves of an unfair judicial system, and even those that aren’t – those that have committed crimes deserving of felon status – should have their voices heard. Those that still pay taxes after being released, but are still on parole or probation, have to lead the life of a normal citizen of the state but without the right to vote, which is by definition taxation without representation. This goes against the very core of this nation.

Furthermore, nonviolent felonies like DUIs and drug offenses are also being punished without much of a chance of rehabilitation, and disenfranchisement further entrenches the cycle for those that struggle with substance dependency. Minnesota had the highest recidivism rate of any state in 2011, and giving those most likely to return to the prison system little or no chance to influence policies that could improve that statistic doesn’t make sense. Even the act of voting itself reduces recidivism, creating an environment for change for the offender  and the community at large. The ability to vote would give a voice to those who most need to see a change in our prison system, as well as those at highest risk for returning visits to prison.

Those most at risk for imprisonment, and those that make up a large portion of current prison populations, are also being further disenfranchised. These demographics largely include lower-class, poor minorities. Again, without the right to vote, mainly young black Americans are further pulled into an already hard-to-escape cycle of crime, imprisonment, and release, especially for non-violent and drug-related offenses. We should not be supporting these efforts by further stripping them of their right to be heard.

When the US has the largest percentage of its citizens imprisoned in the world, we need to start questioning the motives and consequences of our justice system. Yes, imprisonment should be, in part, a punishment for a crime, but punishment for the sake of a sense of justice is meaningless if the consequences negate the result. We need greater focus on reducing crime and recidivism, as well as increasing access to rehabilitation programs to those who need it in order to enact real change on our broken criminal justice system.

Challenging the argument is Ashton Gergen, a junior communication studies major at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. She can be followed on Twitter @ashton_gergen.

Not everybody has the right to vote. How could we say that someone who has committed a felony should above others?

Children, non-citizens and the mentally incompetent are not allowed to vote, because of certain standards that include trust and responsibility. Felons have already proven to act in ways that are dishonest and irresponsible in character. We cannot be sure as a society that we can trust them to act in ways that respect and represent society, because they already have proved that they cannot be trusted. Felons commit crimes that involve an injustice to another party, as well as the entire society. There are consequences for those that commit crimes that violate the rights of others. Not allowing them to vote shows a clear consequence for these actions.

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses equal protection under the law. Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, discusses a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision made in 2009 which was not agreed with, and makes the point that the 14th Amendment does not always pertain to felons and ex- felons. Even though the amendment is upheld for race, gender, and reproductive rights, felonious crimes allow lawmakers to introduce felon disenfranchisement laws.

There are discussions about allowing felons to earn back the right to vote, including the ideas that we as a society expect our voters to have a certain standard for citizens in trust and respect as well as loyalty to our laws. The right to vote in this circumstance could be granted back on a case by case basis upon the proof that the individual can be entrusted with the communities’ faith.

This argument can be summed up by the idea that, “if you are not willing to follow the law, you can not demand the right to elect those who make the law.”

Today’s Question: Should felons have the right to vote?