Upstate Voters

September 15, 2008

Given the major upheaval in the financial sector over the past few days, I think due diligence requires a post on the timely issue of felon disenfranchisement. Over at the Corner, Roger Clegg responds to a NYT article on the subject by linking to an older article of his own. The bulk of the article is dedicated to debunking the myth (repeated in the NYT article) that the practice of denying felons the right to vote is a holdover from the Jim Crow era. As far as I can tell, he is right about this.

But how states came to adopt felon disenfranchisement laws is irrelevant to the question of whether or not those laws are a good idea. Clegg argues that they are:

Individuals who have shown they are unwilling too follow the law cannot claim the right to make laws for the rest of us. We don’t let everyone vote—not children, for instance, or noncitizens, or the mentally incompetent. We have certain minimum standards of trustworthiness before we let people participate in the serious business of self-government, and people who commit serious crimes don’t meet those standards.

I will have to take Clegg’s word on the mentally incompetent, but it is of course true that only U.S. citizens over the age of eighteen can vote. However, this does absolutely nothing to support the claim that “we have certain minimum standards of trustworthiness before we let people participate in the serious business of self-government”, which is complete drivel. It’s not clear what Clegg means by ‘trustworthiness’ here, given that childrent, foreigners, and ‘the mentally incompetent’ are his examples of people who lack it, but whatever it is, we very clearly don’t have a minimum standard for it in our voters, unless the conjunction of felons and the three groups listed above just happens to pick out all of the people who fall below some arbitrary trustworthiness threshold. There is absolutely no reason to think that is the case, and it seems pretty intuitively obvious that there are plenty of fully grown, mentally competent U.S. citizens who haven’t gotten around to committing any felonies just yet but are nonetheless just as untrustworthy as John Q. Prisoner.

The only coherent point Clegg makes in defense of disenfranchisement is in the first sentence quoted above, that those “unwilling too [sic] follow the law cannot claim the right to make laws for the rest of us.” This has some superficial appeal, but it is wrong. Our govenment was founded by men with a very keen awareness of the fact that when citizens disagree with their government the citizens are sometimes in the right, and they shaped the Constitution with this in mind. The First Amendment ensures that when our leaders behave poorly we can call them on it, while the Second ensures that, if they keep it up, we can shoot them. But as satisfying as getting rid of politicians is, it’s generally easier to get rid of laws. Taking the vote away from those who violated slavery- or segregation-related laws surely had the effect of making the electorate more pro-slavery/pro-segregation. Disqualifying anyone who has broken a law from voting is a good way to help bad legislation stay on the books.

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