I’m writing about this topic in the context of a modern democracies in general, but I’m thinking particularly about the United States of America. This is a country that is supposed to exemplify democracy, and it’s a country that my ancestors helped to create and develop.
I’ve witnessed a lot of discussion recently about whether citizens of the USA should be allowed to vote once they have been convicted of certain crimes. Many people believe that a convicted citizen should be punished by revoking their right to vote. It’s common also for those same people to believe that the right to vote should be restored at the end of the sentence.
An argument that isn’t as directly focused on punishment is that these citizens have broken their contract with society and should be disenfranchised so that they cannot take part in society at all. Another idea is that a convict has been determined to have a faulty moral compass that renders him or her unable to make valid choices at the ballot box.
It seems that prison is commonly viewed as a form of punishment, and even though it’s technically the state that seeks justice in criminal law, victims are commonly understood to be the beneficiaries. The word “justice” in its common usage is often just a synonym for socially acceptable revenge.
Incarcerating someone is extremely expensive, costing on average $31,000 per inmate per year across the USA and up to $60,000 per inmate per year in some states¹. A report² from 2017 estimated that the total cost of the criminal justice system is $182 billion per year. That bill is paid by the non-incarcerated population through taxes. In 2018 about 0.7% of the population of the USA was in prison³, which meant that for every free person in America, approximately $555 was paid (through taxes) for the processing and storage of those who were imprisoned.
So from this perspective, the criminal justice system is a socialist revenge mechanism, with private prisons under as single payer (the government). While we don’t yet have a single payer healthcare system, which will benefit everyone, we do have a single payer revenge system.
To set some context for my argument, I will explain the way I view incarceration. I don’t think there is any valid argument for seeking either revenge or punishment, which is not an effective deterrent⁴ and actually increases recidivism⁵. In its essence, justice, as referenced in the US Constitution, is about fairness and equity.
Incarceration is useful for two things: (1) to keep society safe by preventing harm caused by criminals and (2) to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation. Locking up violent people for as long as they are a threat to the rest of the population makes total sense. However, it’s a very expensive approach which is ideally used only temporary, terminated as soon as possible by way of rehabilitation. But even though the possibility and effectiveness of rehabilitation has been thoroughly demonstrated, it’s rarely even attempted⁶. I think this is because enough people would rather pay $555 or more per year to confirm their belief that “we’re all good and they’re all bad.”
But what about voting? Unless it’s revoked, each individual citizen has a right, but not a requirement, to vote. In a democracy, voting is a voluntary, sacred civic duty. Just because it’s a right of an individual citizen, it doesn’t mean that the right primarily benefits the individual. Broad voting rights primarily benefit a democratic society as a whole, and the individual then benefits by being a part of that society. A system of elections enables the balanced will of a nation’s population to be registered. It enables, as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address,“government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
After recent elections, a common sentiment has become, “I won and you lost!” No, democracy is not a zero-sum game. In a democracy, when free and fair elections have taken place, everyone wins. A candidate or a party may lose an election, but the will of the people has been honored. That’s what truly matters in a democracy, and that’s how we win. This nation escaped into self-governance from under the tyranny of a king. It’s not supposed to be a nation of individuals squabbling over who gets to be the new monarch, but a nation of individuals founded upon a wisely-constructed constitution that enables it to function as one adaptive organism; the Constitution enables the citizenry to be the monarch.
Because of this fundamental value that each vote represents to the democracy, it’s critical that citizens are allowed, supported, and encouraged to vote. The loss of even one citizen’s vote, even if we wouldn’t vote the same way—especially if we wouldn’t vote the same way—is an enormous loss to the democracy.
Any time conditions or restrictions are placed on whether or how a citizen can vote, it opens the door to voter suppression, which is a path to the gradual destruction of a democracy. This is particularly true with criminals because if it’s possible to silence the vote of those who have been judged to be criminals, then it creates a perverse incentive for lawmakers to create and pass laws that discriminate against those who might vote against the re-election of them or their party. Preventing those convicted of crimes from voting potentially leads to an accelerated path to the end of democracy.
If an imprisoned citizen wishes to carry out his or her civic duty, why would we prevent them? Their vote would be an indication of sound moral character, a contribution to society, and a service to democracy. We don’t have to see people as only either “good” or “bad.” Someone who has murdered can be kind. Someone who has raped can be empathic. Why should we not allow people to do good things, to reform? And, by the way, it’s not possible for a citizen to vote wrongly.
The immediate and eventual costs to a democracy of preventing citizens in prison from voting is too great to be justified by a vague idea of subjecting an individual to pointless punishment or revenge. We need to select effective and proven approaches to significantly reducing the overall cost of criminal justice. One way to do that is to focus on safety and rehabilitation. Another significant way would be to allow all citizens to vote, whether convicted or not.