Foundering Democracy: Felony Disenfranchisement in the American Tradition of Vote Suppression
National Black Law Journal, Vol. 19, No. 32, 2005-2006
25 Pages Posted: 24 Dec 2007
Felony disenfranchisement is best understood as a means of vote suppression. Quite apart from its significance as a form of criminal stigma, disenfranchisement is most properly characterized as one of the ways in which the American voting system reserves political participation for a privileged social and intellectual class. Thus understood, felony disenfranchisement reveals the theoretical underpinnings of an exclusionary version of American democracy in which more or less widespread disenfranchisement is an acceptable or necessary political tactic.
Felony disenfranchisement should not be characterized as a sanction for criminal conduct: It fits none of the usual justifications for punishment. Most commentators agree that felony disenfranchisement as a collateral sanction for criminal conduct stigmatizes alike a disparate collection of individuals convicted of crimes carrying a penalty of one year or more - everything from drug possession to murder - and extends, in many instances, long after former felons have completed their sentences. Justifications for refusing the vote to felons, and to former felons who are no longer incarcerated, are surprisingly weak and clearly related to larger issues of democratic participation. Accordingly, it is under the framework of democratic participation that the most persuasive justifications of disenfranchisement might be found.
Under the framework of democratic participation, the disenfranchisement debate implicates competing theories of democracy, each of which has profound consequences for the constitution of the American polity. I contend that there are currently three models for the right to vote in American society: (1) a membership model premised upon popular participation in the democratic process as an expression of citizenship; (2) a deliberative model in which popular participation is conditioned upon the duty to be an informed and reflective citizen; and (3) an elite model entrenching political office in a political class that competes for votes among the electoral masses. The continuing vitality of these three models at the level of political debate and constitutional doctrine unsettles the dominant history of the franchise as one of progress from an exclusionary to an inclusionary extension of the mandate, and requires us to acknowledge felony disenfranchisement as part of a larger process of voter exclusion and suppression.
Keywords: democracy, felony disenfranchisement, punishment, collateral vote
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