More on felon disenfranchisement

>> Wednesday, December 09, 2009

In the thread to the post below, Scott P. suggests denying felons the right to vote is consistent with social contract theory. I think that's probably true for some but not all versions of social contract theory, but not a particularly helpful observation. Another commenter, Thomas, suggests "One who has wronged society should not get to participate in the legislating of that soceity until their debt is paid." This is, I think, simply too abstract a way to think about the issue to be of much use.

I'd recommend that anyone who finds this line of thinking persuasive read this old Matt Welch piece. Central to his argument is that, when we take a closer look at the laws, most of us are probably unprosecuted felons. It's much more helpful to think of the disenfranchisement of felons as the disenfranchisement of a subset of felons--those who live in populations where felonies are agressively policed, and who commit felonies we choose to actually enforce.

Once we view the matter in this light, abstract social contract theory about the treatment of 'those who have wronged society' becomes much less helpful in thinking about this issue in the context of contemporary American politics. We've chosen some felonies and some populations to agressively police and prosecute, and others to almost entirely ignore. In the contemporary American political context, the relavent question is not "should those who have wronged society have their participation in collective governance suspended?" A better question would be "should everyone who has ever taken a hit of X have their voting rights stripped if they happen to get caught and for some reason are not given the opportunity to plead out?" An even better one might be "should communities whose illegal drug use is heavily policed deserve their collective voting power diminished vis a vis communities whose illegal drug use is not heavily policed?"


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