In 1971, the 26th amendment to the United States Constitution lowered the required voting age to eighteen. This was the most recent change to the voting rules, and one after pivotal amendments in African American and women’s suffrage, finally rendering the right to vote upon all adults in the United States.
However, a major portion of the population of the United States of America still goes without voting rights, despite being adults. In America today, there still exists a group that must undergo taxation without representation. That group is America’s felons.
Before I demonstrate exactly what felons have to go through in terms of disenfranchisement, it is first necessary to understand how they became felons in the first place. In the United States, a felony is a crime with a maximum sentence longer than one year; for example, theft of over $300 is a felony in our state. This means that while many of us see felonies to be truly outrageous crimes such as murder, many tamer crimes also qualify to make their criminals into felons. While obviously these crimes are wrong, they are not necessarily committed by hardened criminals.
It is also necessary to understand the sheer scope of who has been labeled a felon in this country, specifically in terms of communities. According to the American Civil Liberty Union, there are currently 5.3 disenfranchised felons in America. Going by the figures of the U.S. Census Bureau, that would be 1.7 percent of all Americans, or slightly larger than the population of Minnesota. To put this in terms of a city many of us feel some connection to, according to The Guardian almost 80 percent of African American men in Chicago are felons.
Once one understands how many United States citizens have been labeled as felons, it becomes easier to understand the issue of felon disenfranchisement. While in our state of Illinois voting laws are somewhat progressive, those in prison are still unable to vote. However, in more draconian states, only those on probation can vote. Nineteen states allow felons to only vote upon the completion of a sentence. In eight even stricter states, only some felons can ever vote. In three states felons lose civil and voting rights for life.
In Florida, this ban was used to disenfranchise African Americans from voting after being freed from slavery; it’s worked since then, as one in three African American men in Florida have lost the right to vote because of the ban.
These laws are simply unacceptable. The very system of democracy is based upon the value that all people deserve the right to vote in order to have laws that truly reflect the will of the majority. While our original Constitution did not fully respect these values, as it disenfranchised women and African Americans, over time we as a country became enlightened enough to understand that all adults have a right to democracy. However, in any case where we exclude citizens of our country from democracy, we fail to grant rational adults power over the legislation that will affect their lives in the future. We force them to undergo taxation without representation.
In addition, when we ignore a major voice of society, those who have made poor decisions in the past, and not what we would consider to be serious crimes, to become labeled as felons, we lose an important voice in the democratic process, which thrives when all viewpoints and ideologies have representing in choosing our future leaders.
It is important that we as a people come together to end the practice of denying the essential participation in democracy to those who have made poor choices in the past, and stand for the right for all of us to vote.