Political Analysis 
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Voting Rights for Felons​

Ensuring All Citizens Can Cast a Ballot

For years, arguments have been made over whether incarcerated felons should be able to vote in elections during their incarceration, or even after their time has been served. Debates over the revoking of voting rights has been hotly discussed among the public, politicians, and pundits. However, they are often colored by personal views of morals, rather than thought of in legal terms.

Above all arguments of morals, the discussion of a felon's right to vote is a legal one based on the rule of law of the United States Constitution. The prevention of any US citizen from voting betrays the concept of a freely and fairly elected self-government. Without the ability to cast a ballot, incarcerated citizens—who are still beholden to US law—have no ability to choose who represents them, despite still being taxed on any income earned while imprisoned.

“Prison inmates are responsible for paying federal income tax on all taxable income… [T]he rate paid by an inmate who receives only income from a prison job would be 15 percent” (Jackson-Arnautu). [1]

In addition, prisoners are not eligible to receive tax credits on earned income. This, legally, is taxation without representation and deserves scrutiny. It comes down to this: stripping the rights from citizens to elect officials to represent them while paying taxes—incarcerated or not—an acceptable form of punishment?

In strictly constitutional terms, the answer is "no".

Preventing felons from participating in a free and fair election creates a contradiction, where the very reason for the founding of this country—taxation without representation—is acceptable to inflict upon certain citizens as punishment. This, essentially, is partially stripping an individual of citizenship while still collecting taxes from them.

The inability to cast a ballot is a stark separation of citizen’s rights of inmates from general society, both during and after incarceration. Though the separation of felons from the public is a punishment for crimes committed, there is a concern that the deprivation of the most basic right of participating in elections goes beyond the goal of punishment and reform, and becomes an issue of essentially declaring incarcerated felons as non-citizens.

"Telling prisoners they cannot vote is premised on the idea that convicts undergo a sort of temporary “civic death”—a suspension of normal rights as citizens while they are behind bars (...) [T]he Supreme Court decided that prisoners cannot have their citizenship stripped as a punishment for a crime" (Brettschneider). [2]

Additionally, this sets a dangerous precedent for depriving any US citizen of their ability to vote. Where is the line drawn as to who deserves their rights taken away? This line is decided by the federal courts, and though legal precedent is already set, there is no guarantee that this revoking of rights will be limited to incarcerated felons in the future. If the federal government is able to revoke the Constitutional rights of citizens, it opens the door to revoke any Constitutional right from citizens who are incarcerated or encourage corruption within the legal system to incarcerate citizens specifically to remove their Constitutional rights.

Though most of the discussion amongst the public pertaining to an incarcerated felon’s right to vote is based on moral arguments, the public should also take into account the legal side of the discussion, and whether the revoking of Constitutional rights from citizens is something that the United States government should be able to do as a punishment for crimes committed. 

[ 1 ] Jackson-Arnautu, Natasha. “What Are Prisoners’ Rights About Income Taxes?” Legal Beagle. https://legalbeagle.com/6879767-prisoners-rights-income-taxes.html.

[ 2 ] Brettschneider, Corey. “Why Prisoners Deserve the Right to Vote.” Politico, June 21st, 2016. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/06/prisoners-convicts-felons-inmates-righ t-to-vote-enfranchise-criminal-justice-voting-rights-213979.

© 2020 Kaitlyn Colhouer