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4.6.07

Voting Rights For Felons

It seems that the ACLU is suing Arizona because the state's felon disenfranchisement laws are excessively strict, impacting not just "common law" felons like murderers and rapists, but also "raar we get tough on crime" felons like nonviolent drug offenders and people who fail to pay court fees.

The responses to this development by commenters on the AZ Republic's site fall into three categories (all negative, of course):

1. Oh noes teh illegal immigants!!one! This doesn't actually have anything to do with felon disenfranchisement, but there's some sort of rule that every comment thread on the Republic's site -- whether the story be about Iraq, light rail, or Paris Hilton -- be 50% rants about immigration.

2. They knew they were losing the right to vote when they committed their crime. The problem with this response is that it proves too much. Any punishment could be justified this way, and thus we're left without any standards by which we can argue for or against a sentencing law. Death penalty for a parking violation? Sorry buddy, you knew that was the punishment when you decided not to move your car on street-sweeping day. At most, this principle might be applied to block judicial review -- there may be reasons why a punishment is more or less suited to a particular crime, but the court's job is not to question those policy judgments. However, commenters using this argument are not intending a procedural argument about the scope of the court's power independent of their policy preferences, but rather they clearly intend it as a substantive justification of the policy.

3. What if we let child molesters vote and they vote for legalizing pedophilia? Technically this argument is inapplicable to the ACLU's suit, which recognizes that serious felonies like child molestation may constitutionally be grounds for taking away the right to vote. Presumably these people are not deathly afraid of enabling a huge court-fees-reduction voting bloc. But it's legitimate to talk about the larger policy question (like I did in the previous paragraph!), on which many of us favor re-enfranchising all felons, so we should look at why this argument is wrong on the merits. It basically boils down to a position that people shouldn't be allowed to vote if we think there's a good chance they'll vote for the wrong thing. In this sense it's similar to conservative proposals for taking the vote away from DC residents or people on welfare because they'd have an incentive to vote for bigger government.

There is some room in designing a democratic system for procedurally promoting competence and the "right results," for example through mechanisms that promote deliberation, disenfranchising young children, and constitutional principles (like those the ACLU is appealing to) that are harder to change or overrule than ordinary laws. However, it is contradictory to the idea of democracy to prejudge the outcomes by disenfranchising people because they will vote the wrong way. If we're going to limit the voting public like that, why have voting in the first place?

The right to vote is not rooted in the likelihood that you'll tick the right box. It's rooted in the moral right to have a say in the conditions and circumstances that affect your own life, which is in turn rooted in respect for you as a distinct sentient being. Your sentience is not compromised by committing a crime or having wrong preferences, so neither should your right to vote.

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