Current felon disenfranchisement policies reflect punitive American attitudes and court deference to legislatures in punishment. Since the 1970s, the American criminal justice system has moved toward harsher punishments, in stark contrast to trends in Western industrialized nations. Thus, even as the world has moved toward increased electoral enfranchisement, felon disenfranchisement has remained relatively constant in America.
III. Legal Status
In general usage, the term felon disenfranchisement refers to the restriction of voting rights for convicted felons. Broadly speaking, felon disenfranchisement is a part of a larger category of collateral civil consequences, both formal and informal, that affect the status of convicted offenders, including residential restrictions, gun ownership bans, financial benefit exclusions, lost employment opportunities, decreased status, and social stigma (LaFollette, 2005; see Uggen, Manza, & Thompson, 2006, p. 297). A felon is an individual convicted of an offense that typically carries a maximum penalty of at least 1 year in jail. Although almost all (48 out of 50) American states have felon disenfranchisement laws, these policies have become increasingly controversial in terms of their impact on elections. For example, Manza and Uggen (2006, p. 191) estimated that the exclusion of felons from voting provided “a small but clear advantage to Republican candidates in every presidential and senatorial election from 1972 to 2000” (p. 194). Specifically, they asserted that Democratic candidates would likely have prevailed in Texas (1978), Kentucky (1984 and 1992), Florida (1988 and 2004), and Georgia (1992; Uggen & Manza, 2006).
Proponents of felon disenfranchisement argue that such policies serve deterrence, retribution, and efficiency rationales (i.e., they deter future crime, punish offenders by excluding them from community political participation on moral grounds, and are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of democratic institutions). Critics, however, contend that felon disenfranchisement does not deter crime; undermines postconviction integration into society; originates from racial discrimination; and disproportionately excludes particular demographic segments, such as African American males, from political participation.
Because felon disenfranchisement affects the civil rights of nearly 5 million voters (over 2% of the eligible voters), critically evaluating its rationales remains a significant criminal justice policy issue (Manza & Uggen, 2004). Compounding the problem is America’s unprecedented incarceration binge over the last quarter century, wherein prison populations quadrupled from 500,000 to 2,000,000 (Currie, 1998; Richards, Austin, & Jones, 2004). This research paper first traces felon disenfranchisement’s history to its modern forms and reviews its current legal status. Then rationales for and against felon disenfranchisement are presented and evaluated in light of criminology and criminal justice research. The research paper concludes with sociology of law explanations for felon disenfranchisement and American trends therein.