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Should convicted criminals have the right to vote?

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: Mario Tama
*Updated 2023
Is voting a basic human right, or is it as much a privilege as having quiet neighbors and being allowed to drive? The world is divided over this issue, with some countries permanently disenfranchising convicted criminals (i.e., removing their right to vote) and others permitting felons to vote even while they’re in prison. An estimated 4.6 million Americans can’t vote due to felony convictions. This number has decreased in recent years due to states working to curtail this practice and an overall decline in state prison populations. However, the question of whether curbing criminals’ voting rights is justified. Though controversial, this is a conversation that needs to be addressed, especially given that some states have recently been working to pave the way for more ex-felons to regain their right to vote.
Here are three reasons why convicted criminals should have the right to vote, and three reasons why not.


Losing the right to vote shouldn’t be a consequence of committing crime.


Voting restrictions may create a racial imbalance.

Studies have shown that ethnic minorities are more likely to go to jail than members of the majority population; for example, African American males in the U.S. are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. If the votes of specific racial ethnicities are minimized more than those of the majority, their political interests won’t be represented proportionally. Stemming from this, felony disenfranchisement would essentially nullify the US Voting Rights Act that sought to provide meaningful ballot representation for society’s minorities.


Disenfranchisement can be a roadblock to rehabilitation

Many former prisoners eventually rejoin society, and they may well become our future neighbors. With that in mind, we all hope that the guy next door is rehabilitated and intent on staying that way! Strain theory in psychology contends that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve certain socially acceptable goals, and if they’re unable to meet these expectations, it causes strain that can eventually lead to crime. In this vein, restricting felons’ rights to vote can serve to further alienate them from the normative population, producing the type of strain that can cause them to re-offend.


Voting sets an example for children.

Many prisoners have children who are under the age of 18, and these kids have no way to fight for representation of their own political interests. The number one advocates for children are their parents, but these parents can’t influence public policy regarding their children without being able to vote. There is evidence that children of parents with a criminal background are at higher risk of becoming criminals themselves. Therefore, it’s important for these children to know their parents are voting, because it provides them with a positive model of behavior of contributing to the betterment of society.


Crime deserves punishment, and voting is no exception.



Crime is a societal problem, and voting is a societal privilege.

While crime is perpetrated by individuals, the impact is on society as a whole. Crime is expensive, costing taxpayers–and the government –tens of billions of dollars per year. Additionally, the amount of time and resources allocated to court trials takes away from time spent towards community productivity, and none of this takes into account the fact that crime is hurtful to its victims. As such, it doesn’t seem right that felons who have such an extensive negative impact on the social order should be allowed to be part of the decision-making process that contributes to that order. In violating the social contract by committing crime, felons are giving up their privilege of participating in the forming of societal policy.


Criminals have a proven history of bad judgment.

Not all sentences end with a period of jail time; some have repercussions that continue across a criminal’s life. For example, in many US states, sex offenders aren’t allowed within a certain proximity of schools, playgrounds, or daycare centers, even after they’ve done their time. The logic behind this is simple: We can’t trust the judgment of convicted felons. Just like minors and people deemed mentally incompetent aren’t trusted with the vote, neither should convicted criminals. The same way we want to trust our candidates, we also must trust the people voting them in.


Jail is a loss of freedom.

The threat of jail time isn’t necessarily enough of a deterrent to those with a criminal streak, as evidenced by the number of repeat offenders who return to jail (44% before their first full year out of prison). By definition, jail is a loss of freedom, and this threat is enhanced when it includes the loss of democratic rights as well. While some may argue that many felons may be indifferent to losing the right to vote, the message is a societal one as much as a personal one: Criminal behavior is intolerable, and losing your most basic rights is fair game as a punishment.


The Bottom Line: Many people deserve a second chance, but not when they pose a risk to society at large. What do you think? Should the right to vote be untouchable, or is it a privilege that has potential to be revoked?

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