Felony Disenfranchisement and the Nineteenth Amendment
15 Pages Posted: 20 Oct 2020
Date Written: September 2, 2019
Today’s arguments in support of felony disenfranchisement laws bear striking similarities to the arguments of anti-suffragists more than a century earlier. Both suggest that a traditionally subordinated class of citizens is inherently incapable of bearing the responsibility that the right to vote entails.17 Both argue that some potential votes are somehow less worthy than others, and thus the authors of those votes ought to be excluded from the marketplace of political ideas. And both assert a distinction between the votes of some citizens thought to be of higher political value, and those thought unworthy of having their voices counted in the political arena. This Article examines the historical response to those arguments and suggests that they can be applied forcefully in the contemporary debate over felony disenfranchisement. Suffragists raised two arguments in response to coverture-based contentions against women enfranchisement: first, that men simply did not represent women’s interests in politics, instead subordinating them ever further both in family structures and the public sphere; and second, that women had something important to add to the political conversation that would be missing as long as they were excluded from the debate. Similarly, felony disenfranchisement laws are based upon the fiction that there is a distinction between good votes of most citizens and bad votes of criminals, and therefore excluding former felons’ voices from the political arena is acceptable because their interests will be sufficiently served by the good votes of others. But the voices of former felons should be heard, both because of the perspective those voices will bring to modern problems caused by growing incarceration rates, and because those voices may add important and worthy ideas to the political marketplace that would be absent if their contributions are excluded.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation