Should convicted felons have the right to vote?

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Answered by: Afton, An Expert in the Campaigns and Voting Category
I've often heard people say, "Voting isn't a right, it's a privilege." I beg to differ, and it only seems fair to say our founding fathers would too. In fact, the Constitution mentions "the right to vote" more than any other right, so why do 11 states in the country continue to deny this basic right to so many of their citizens? According to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks reform for the criminal justice system, "an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the voting rights because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions." This staggering figure only gets more shocking when you realize that many of those affected are black, resulting in 1 in every 13 black citizens being denied a vote. In total, 60 percent of the prison population is comprised of minorities.

It is unjust of our government to deny the right to vote to any of its citizens. After all, those who are incarcerated ultimately ended up in their current predicaments as a result of the judicial system. They deserve the right voice their opinions and concerns, and what better way to do that on a broader scale than through electing an official or representative. Who's to say that someone convicted of a felony was even rightly sentenced to begin with?

Aside from denying a citizen a basic human right, it seems counterproductive to strip a felon of his or her voting rights. While some say voting is a privilege, I view it as more of a a responsibility. One of the most effective ways to prevent repeat incarceration is through instilling responsibility. If a person is more invested in his or her communities, is given a purpose and is actually trying to enhance their quality of life, it can increase one's self-worth and often helps them to appreciate and value their lives.

So why is it that so many are in this predicament today? Some believe voter disenfranchisement may be viewed as beneficial to some elected officials, as a higher turnout for minority voters might result in certain representatives being voted out of office. Others believe the government simply punishes non-violent offenders too harshly for their crimes. Maine and Vermont are the only two states who don't follow the trend of stripping felon rights to at least some degree, even allowing their prison inmates to vote. The rest of the country seems to be lagging behind, though the topic is gaining more attention as of late. Early last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on states to repeal such laws. As a result, and a continued push from advocacy groups across the country, some states are beginning to hear a lot more buzz about reform.

In recent years, legislation dealing with felon voter restoration rights has failed to pass. The Democracy Restoration Act, which would restore felon voter rights, died in committee in 2011 and came to a vote in 2012, but was not enacted. According to The Sentencing Project, the U.S. ranks among the most strict nations in the world when it comes to denying convicted felons their voting rights. In 1979, an estimated 1.2 million people were affected, and since then that number has more than quadrupled, proving that we, the boasted "Land of the Free," are surely moving in the wrong direction. It's time we reconsider our laws in order to allow every citizen his or her basic right to participate in democracy. If we deny a person a voice, we deny their impact on their future, which may not just affect them, but many generations to come.

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