20 January, 2022

The Humanitarian Collective

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OPINION: The Case for Enfranchising America’s Prisoners

The case for granting felons and other Americans serving lengthy sentences the right to vote, through the lens of the "Social Contract".

The United States of America undoubtedly has a reputation for low voter turnout in both its local and national elections. Millions of Americans, eligible to vote, do not go to the polls, most often citing a lack of time or general dislike of the candidates. 

Low voter turnout is unquestionably problematic for our democracy and endangers the representation of our citizens. There is, however, one fundamental aspect of low rates of voting that is often neglected: those citizens disenfranchised because of their criminal records. 

Voting is a civil right bestowed upon all citizens of the US at the age of 18. And yet, many of our citizens choose not to vote; and, more disturbingly, many others are forbidden from doing so. Taking away the right to vote is fundamentally at odds with our democracy. Voter enfranchisement is a civil right that no citizen should have taken away because of criminal convictions. 

Banning American citizens from voting is at its core deeply and dangerously anti-democratic. Voting is the right that our democracy was founded on; being able to choose the people who go to Washington D.C. and make the decisions that affect our everyday lives and opportunities. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are, according to the United States government, unalienable rights that belong to all persons. These principles are the basis of the civil rights that guarantee equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law regardless of race, religion, or other personal characteristics, and voting is a fundamental component of civil rights. Therefore, when citizens are denied participation in political society, they are being denied their civil rights. The Canadian Supreme court acknowledged as much: after reversing the blanket disenfranchisement of all its prisoners the Canadian Supreme Court said “if we accept that governmental power in a democracy flows from the citizens, it is difficult to see how that power can legitimately be used to disenfranchise the very citizens from whom the government’s power flows.” 

Those who favor continuing to disenfranchise felons believe that people who have broken the law have forfeited the right to have any say in it. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Roger Clegg, the President and General Counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity and Attorney General in the Justice Department’s former civil rights division said  “…if you won’t follow the law yourself, then you can’t make the law for everyone else, which is what you do – directly or indirectly – when you vote”. What Clegg is referring to here is the “Social Contract”, as many call it. The social contract is the unspoken agreement among citizens to uphold the laws for the good of the community and for society. Clegg’s reasoning says that those who break the social contract, by committing a crime, can no longer reap the benefits of the contract, in this case political representation, even as his reasoning also underscores that voting is a fundamental way in which representative government is maintained: those who vote make laws. 

Interestingly, most Americans agree with Clegg. According to a 2018 article from the Huffington Post, only 24% of Americans believed that felons currently serving their sentences in prison should be able to vote. A possible explanation for this scarce support for current prisoners being re-enfranchised is the sentiment that disenfranchisement is a logical part of the punishment prisoners receive.

The problem with this line of thinking begins with a limited understanding of the prison population. The walls of prisons not only lock in our prisoners in but keep society out. Few journalists ever venture into American prisons and tell their stories to the outside world. This disconnect has resulted in Americans looking to movies and television series as an accurate representation of prisoners. This common mindset of Americans on prisoners is one based on stereotypes and dramatized scenes from Hollywood, not reality. Many would like to believe that prisoners are less than human, nothing like themselves, and worthy of little care. This reductive thinking has surely undermined the possibility of Americans to be supportive of prisoners’ rights. 

Clegg’s argument also rests on the dangerous assumption that a person, say convicted of a low level drug offense for example, cannot be trusted to decide between candidates over who has a better stance on issues ranging from healthcare to foreign aid. This is a slippery slope. If Clegg suggests that prisoners lack moral character, regardless of the severity of their crime, should we then require “moral character tests” for voting? In this country many people commit punishable offenses yet may not be punished for their actions. Should “deadbeat dads” be deprived of voting rights? What about the morally depraved who are never convicted of a crime? The danger of blanket disenfranchisement based on imprisonment is a profound undermining of civil rights. Prisoners are punished by serving their sentence: should they also in addition be considered “non-people” or “secondary citizens” who lose their basic civil rights as citizens of the United States? This is simply an additional and unconstitutional punishment. Prison should be a place of rehabilitation for inmates, it should prepare prisoners to re-enter society as engaged citizens. However, by taking away the right to vote we are harming ex-felons’ ability to reintegrate back into society and dehumanizing current prisoners.

Stripping prisoners of voting rights is a way to perpetuate punishment well beyond the sentence imposed by the justice system, and this is making the very questionable assumption that the criminal justice sets forth fair sentences. Felons should never lose their civil right to vote if we want our democracy to prevail. Felon disenfranchisement makes our democracy weaker and it must be abolished. 

Barring felons from voting while in prison and often for far after is not only an extended punishment for Americans, but also for a dangerous undermining of our democracy. 

Above is an opinion piece reflecting the opinion of the writer but does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Humanitarian Collective, its Editorial Board, opinion editors, constituents, or sponsors.


  1. Hamlin, Rebecca. “Civil Rights.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Sept. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/civil-rights.
  2. “Democracy Imprisoned: The Prevalence and Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States.” The Sentencing Project, 30 Sept. 2013, www.sentencingproject.org/publications/democracy-imprisoned-a-review-of-the-prevalence-and-impact-of-felony-disenfranchisement-laws-in-the-united-states/.
  3. Clegg , Roger. “Should Felons Ever Be Allowed to Vote?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Apr. 2016, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/04/22/should-felons-ever-be-allowed-to-vote/if-you-cant-follow-laws-you-shouldnt-help-make-them.
  4. Levine, Sam, and Ariel Edwards-Levy. “Most Americans Favor Restoring Felons Voting Rights, But Disagree On How.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 21 Mar. 2018, www.huffpost.com/entry/felons-voting-rights-poll_n_5ab2c153e4b008c9e5f3c88a.
  5. Mauer, Marc. “Voting Behind Bars: An Argument for Voting by Prisoners .” The Sentencing Project , The Sentencing Project, 23 June 2011, www.sentencingproject.org/publications/voting-behind-bars-an-argument-for-voting-by-prisoners/.

Hello! My name is Carolina Hohl. I'm a sixteen year old junior at Bronx Science. I enjoy learning and discussing politics, as well as playing volleyball. I am particularly passionate about criminal justice reform, local government, and voting rights.