Criminal Justice

Trent England | August 10, 2020

Letting felons vote makes sense, sometimes

Trent England

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds this week granted voting rights to about 40,000 convicted felons. For those convicted in Iowa of lower-level felonies, her order automatically restores their right to vote after their sentence is completed. That is how the law already operates in Oklahoma.

Reinstating the right to vote to felons who have completed their sentences makes sense for pragmatic reasons. Unfortunately, arguments made in support of felon voting often wrongly suggest it is a moral or legal imperative rather than simply good, pragmatic policy.

The original definition of a felony was a crime punishable by death. These were the most serious crimes, like murder and treason. Sometimes this category was extended to other wrongful acts, like certain thefts. While use of the death penalty has become more circumscribed, the classification of wrongful acts as felonies has expanded. Today, any crime punishable by more than one year of incarceration is considered a felony.

In Oklahoma, carrying a banner indicating disloyalty to the government is a felony (although this crime certainly violates state and federal constitutional protections for free speech). If a person who is drunk in public teases a police dog, that is a felony. Federal law is perhaps even more expansive, as chronicled in Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.

This is one reason convicted felons should have the opportunity to restore their voting (and other) rights: so many crimes, including less serious crimes, are classified as felonies. If a person could have been executed, but instead serves a prison term and has his right to vote permanently revoked, that is merciful. But if a person commits a less serious crime, serves his prison sentence, but then also has his right to vote permanently revoked, that is an additional penalty.

People convicted of less serious felonies should not be stigmatized for the rest of their lives. The law, it is sometimes said, is a teacher. In this case, the law should offer a path to redemption. Almost every person convicted of a felony will eventually be released from prison and return to our communities. If we desire that they become full members of society, we should offer a pathway to do just that.

Unfortunately, some advocates claim that reinstating voting rights for felons is morally or constitutionally required. The constitutional argument is absurd since every provision on elections was written and ratified with the understanding that it permitted felon disenfranchisement. States may not discriminate in elections based on sex, or based on age for anyone 18 and up, but there is no general right to vote.

The purpose of government is not democracy. In fact, democracy is a process. It is the process we use to hold government accountable and, in some cases, to produce representation. The purpose of government is to protect the natural rights of individuals. One reason to prohibit serious criminals from voting is that we know, by virtue of their crimes, that they care not about the rights of others. That is a reasonable determination, except when the definition of a felony becomes so expansive that it is almost a synonym for all crime. 

Trent England David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England

David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.

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