A Disenfranchising Democracy: Voting Rights for Felons

prison jail voting rights

Guest post by: Matthew Oakley

In the midst of a tumultuous election—one that shook the nation, and challenged many preconceived notions about our democracy—there was a portion of the population that had no real voice. The current sociological climate strives to suppress any discrimination whatsoever—and rightly so—but turns a blind eye when talking about a certain subset of the population. It is not a subset that is necessarily defined by age, gender, belief, race, or social status—but one instead defined by the nebulous border between good and evil.

In 12 states felons can indefinitely lose voting rights, while in 22 they are restricted for a set period of time. The laws and definitions vary wildly from state to state, and discerning them can take a level of mental gymnastics that the modern education system can hardly prepare one for. While the majority of Americans spend little time thinking about any of this, every couple of years three percent of the population is told to sit in the corner while the rest of us exercise our right to affect change in the world around us—locally, nationally, and even at times internationally.

43-year-old Crystal Mason is part of that three percent, and her home state of Texas is one of the 22 states in which the voting rights of felons are stripped away both during incarceration and for a period afterward—usually while a person is on probation. In 2012 she was convicted of tax fraud and served three years in prison for the offense. While on probation she was reminded by her mother that she needed to get out and exercise her civic duty to vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Mason was not aware of the restrictions her state had on felons and parolees voting, and wasn’t informed of them by her parole officer, the judge who handled her tax fraud case, the people at the halfway house in which she was residing, or the volunteers at the precinct who helped her register and cast her ballot. It is worth noting that Mason cast a provisional ballot that did not end up being counted in the election, due to her ineligibility. But because of her ignorance, prior conviction, and a worthless ballot, Murray was sentenced to five years jail time.

In an effort to further crack down on voter fraud many states have increased penalties on cases like that of Crystal Mason—and while the president claims that the issue of voter fraud is quite rampant, many bipartisan studies show otherwise. A comprehensive study published by the Washington Post in 2014 showed 31 instances of impersonation fraud between 2000 and 2014, out of around 1 billion votes cast. A study done by the Brennan Center for Justice showed that incidents of voter fraud hang somewhere between 0.0003% and 0.0025% of votes cast. Further studies have been done by the DOJ, Columbia University, the Republican National Lawyers Association, the Government Accountability Office, and an array of others–all of which arrived at similar conclusions.

In addition to being predicated on the fear of an issue that borders on nonexistence, the legislation is also surrounded by the contagious idea that those found guilty of a certain array of crimes—which vary by state, of course—are incapable of making sound decisions, in some cases for the rest of their lives. And while this mentality ignores the fact that large groups of people offend the mere idea of sound decision making on a daily basis, it also seeks to instill the idea that rehabilitation is in some way a myth.

What is further frustrating is the rhetoric we use to discuss ex-cons once they have re-entered society. The perception is that a debt has been paid—that one has done their time—and is once again able to reintegrate into society. But like so many ideas that permeate society, we rarely square rhetoric with action—instead choosing to exercise our articles of hypocrisy. Felons are unable to bear arms, hold public office, serve on a jury, teach, or receive government loans for education. In many instances they are discriminated against in the job market, they are unable to obtain certain kinds of business licensing, and can see parental rights diminish.

These restrictions create an environment in which a person is ostracized as a member of the community—which only serves to further instill the outlaw mentality we hope to eradicate. In a recent study, psychologists drew distinctions between feelings of guilt and shame on a felon and measured their effects accordingly. Guilt, being measured as an internalized emotion, showed a positive effect on changes in the life of a felon—while shame, categorized as an external force, was shown to increase recidivism in the study group.

In all of this, we also fail to recognize that there are varying degrees to life and all its intricacies, and that not all parties can be judged by the same strict rubric. To assume that all felonies are comparable to at least some degree, and thus their perpetrators are as well, is to ignore the judicial institution which convicted them in the first place. Not all murder can be summed up in the same way, nor can all burglary for instance. There are degrees of murder because the nuance of a situation is relevant to how we judge it.

Celebrated commentator and linguist Noam Chomsky said, in Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World, that “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.” Those without the black mark of crime on their record are most certainly the powerful in this instance, and so it becomes easy to hand out judgement from the pedestal of non-conviction—but the court of public opinion is a low bar to qualify for, and one that holds little gravity on the real moral standing of others. The right to participate in the democratic process is one that engenders feelings of pride in those to whom it is available, and that courtesy is not one that should be provided to only the absolutely altruistic—if it was, we would all risk certain exclusion.

About the Author: Matthew Oakley is a podcaster and writer whose articles have been featured at a number of websites and publications including The Gralien Report and Intrepid Magazine, in addition to regional publications in Western North Carolina. He is fiercely opinionated, and is outspoken with his writing regarding politics, skepticism, and science. Equipped with a true contrarian mindset, there are few topics out of his reach. Mr. Oakley can be reached via email at engineer@gralienreport.com. Follow Matt on Twitter: @GralienReverend.


Want to take a deeper dive? Here’s a list of sources from the article: 

“Felon Voting Rights – National Conference of State Legislatures.” 28 Nov. 2017, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx.

“Study provides first estimate of total US population with felony convictions.” 28 Sep. 2017, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170928121641.htm

“Texas Woman Sentenced To 5 Years For Illegal Voting.” 31 Mar. 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/31/598458914/texas-woman-sentenced-to-5-years-for-illegal-voting

“A comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation finds 31 credible incidents out of one billion ballots cast.” 06 Aug, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/08/06/a-comprehensive-investigation-of-voter-impersonation-finds-31-credible-incidents-out-of-one-billion-ballots-cast/?utm_term=.42a72e8f2c73

“The Truth About Voter Fraud.” 09 Nov. 2007, https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/truth-about-voter-fraud

“In 5-Year Effort, Scant Evidence of Voter Fraud.” 12 Apr. 2007,

“The Politics of Voter Fraud.” http://www.projectvote.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/03/Politics_of_Voter_Fraud_Final.pdf

“New Republican Data Shows No Need For Voter ID Laws.” 12 Dec. 2011, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/debbie-hines/voter-fraud-statistics_b_1139085.html

“Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws.” Sep. 2014, https://www.gao.gov/assets/670/665966.pdf

“What Rights Do Convicted Felons Lose?.”

What Rights Do Convicted Felons Lose?

“CAN SHAME PREDICT WHETHER A RELEASED FELON WILL REOFFEND?.” 12 Feb. 2014, https://psmag.com/news/shame-predict-felon-reoffend-74491

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