At the core of any democratic society is the right to vote. Some may argue that it is also a responsibility to do so, but there should be no disagreement about the act of voting being of paramount importance for any country claiming to function on democratic principles. It should easily follow that supporters of democracy would be expected to push for allowing as many people to vote as possible because to do otherwise diminishes the power of the people.
The U.S. currently finds itself, however, in the ironic position of selling democracy to the world while not fully embracing it at home. The recent Supreme Court ruling on the federal Voting Rights Act has opened the door for states to begin instituting policies that discourage people from voting through discriminatory voter ID laws, early voting restrictions, and gerrymandering. Lawmakers in several states quickly announced they would waste little time enacting new voting restrictions. These new avenues of voter suppression add to a growing list of problems Americans experience in trying to exercise their right to vote. Thankfully, new groups have formed to push for positive reforms, and Project Vote issued a report earlier this year outlining many of the threats to voting rights. While this report includes some problems familiar to many, it includes an anti-democratic policy that rarely gets mentioned -- the right of felons to vote.
When an American citizen commits a felony, most states have some law that at least temporarily disenfranchises them, meaning that the person is unable to vote during and/or after their prison sentence. State laws vary greatly on this issue, as only two states allow convicted felons to vote while in prison or after their release, while 13 states allow convicted felons to vote just after their incarceration ends and 23 states allow convicted felons to vote only after their post-incarceration parole or probation ends. Tragically, 12 states permanently remove the right of a convicted felon to vote based upon factors such as the number and types of crime committed.
Currently, nearly six million Americans are unable to vote because of a felony conviction according to a 2012 report by the Sentencing Project, which means that one of every 40 adults in this country is unable to vote. How democratic is our country when so many otherwise eligible citizens are unable to vote because of crimes for which they have already been punished?
Supporters of felony disenfranchisement argue that felons have already removed themselves from our society by breaking our laws and hurting other citizens, and as a result they should not have a right to participate in creating and reforming the very laws that they have broken.
While most issues hold no common ground between humanists and Christian evangelicals, this one could be an exception to that rule. Many humanists and evangelicals agree that felons have the potential for reform, albeit for different reasons.
Evangelicals base their belief in the potential to reform on the concept of redemption, the idea that if one opens oneself up to God and is truly repentant that they can be born again as good human beings. National Association of Evangelicals Vice President for Government Relations Galen Carey recently wrote that "we never give up on people, no matter what they have done" and outlines a plan that "support[s] ex-offenders as they re-establish their futures."
Humanists would generally agree people can improve but do so based on the idea that humans dynamically have the potential to change based upon their experiences and circumstances. The humanist understanding of reform is also a block in the foundation for our understanding of participatory democracy where everyone who is governed by the state should be able to influence its laws and officials.
Felony disenfranchisement removes human dignity by relegating people to second-class citizen status and making them subject to a state that has no electoral accountability to those that have been convicted of felonies. Furthermore, by assuming that a felon is unable to participate productively in society after completing their punishment, we send the message that those who have done wrong do not have the potential to improve.
Once people serve their time, they should be given an opportunity to participate productively in all aspects of a normal life, which includes the right to be politically involved and to have some degree of control over the people and institutions that make and enforce laws.
Felons are human beings, just like everyone else. Their human right to participate in a democratic society is no different from our own right to do so. Ultimately, when we choose to withhold the vote we hurt felons' chances of success on their road to redemption and we endanger the very health of our democracy.