The idea that felons should be allowed to vote while incarcerated is not just an unwise policy, it is a reckless one.
Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment specifically provides that states may abridge the right to vote of citizens “for participation in rebellion, or other crime” — a tradition that goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. Any claim that state laws that prevent incarcerated felons from voting are all rooted in racial discrimination is simply historically inaccurate. Even before the Civil War, when many black Americans were slaves and could not vote, most states took away the right to vote of those convicted of serious crimes.
All but two states, Maine and Vermont, take away the right of felons to vote when they are convicted and are serving their sentences. Such a policy makes perfect sense and is in the best interests of our society and local communities. As a federal judge said in 2002 in an unsuccessful case challenging Florida’s disenfranchisement law, felons are deprived of their ability to vote because of “their own decision to commit an act for which they assume the risks of detection and punishment.”
In other words, felons are individuals who have chosen to violate the rules and norms of our society, rules and norms that are incorporated in our laws and that are intended to protect all of us and provide for the safety of our communities. Those who are not willing to follow the law cannot claim a right to choose those who will make and enforce the laws for everyone else.
That is what you, as a citizen, are doing when you enter a polling place to vote. As a voter, you are either making the law directly through ballot initiatives and referenda or indirectly by choosing not only lawmakers, but the local sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges who enforce the law.
Why would you want to allow those who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens to vote while they are still incarcerated? They have demonstrated by their action that they do not have the responsibility and commitment to our laws to make them trustworthy enough to vote.
Does anyone really think that someone like Richard Poplawski, who was convicted of the ambush-style killing of three Pittsburgh police officers, should be able to vote while he is sitting on death row?
And who will be hurt the most by allowing incarcerated felons to vote? It is law-abiding citizens in high-crime areas where people are often disproportionately poor and minority. It is hardly in their best interests to allow the criminals who victimize them to stand next to them in the ballot box, figuratively speaking.
Most states restore the right to vote once the felon is out of prison and has completed any required parole or probation, although some states also have a waiting period beyond that because of high recidivism rates. This makes sense.
The right to vote should not be restored until felons have been released and shown that they really have learned their lesson, turned over a new leaf, and are now willing to abide by the rules under which we all live.
Letting them vote from prison, cancelling out the votes of their victims, is an unfair and imprudent proposal.
This piece originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer