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Should felons be allowed to vote? Many states restrict or deny voting rights to those convicted of serious crimes.

For several years, the U.S. Justice Department has been urging states to repeal laws that prevent felons from voting. A felon is anyone convicted of a felony--a crime that usually involves theft or violence, or both.

Laws that prohibit felons from voting have been found to be constitutional. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld California's policy of prohibiting felons from voting because, it said, the 14th Amendment allows voting rights to be denied "for participation in rebellion, or other crime." Most states have adopted some kind of voting restrictions for felons, with many allowing voting once they've served their sentence. Only two states-Vermont and Maine--have no restrictions.

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YES When the United States was founded as an experiment in democracy two centuries ago, it was a very limited experiment.

The Founding Fathers decreed that women couldn't vote. They also denied this fundamental right to blacks, poor people, illiterates, and people with felony convictions.

Today, all but the last of these groups have won the right to vote. This leaves nearly 6 million people with felony convictions barred from the electoral process.

State laws on whether people with felony convictions can vote vary widely. In 12 states, a felony conviction can result in a lifetime voting ban. That means an 18-year-old convicted of first-time felony drug possession in Florida or Virginia who successfully completes a treatment program may never vote again.

There need to be conseguences for people who break the law, but punishment for a crime shouldn't deny basic rights of citizenship. People convicted of crimes can still get married or divorced, or buy and sell property. A democratic society doesn't impose character tests on fundamental rights.

Felony disenfranchisement policies disproportionately affect minorities. Nationally, one in every 13 black adults can't vote because of a felony conviction. In two states-Florida and Virginia--one in five black adults can't vote.

Denying the right to vote is also counterproductive to public safety. When people return home from prison, they're expected to work, pay taxes, take care of children, and be responsible citizens. People who feel they have a stake in their community will be less likely to harm their neighbors.

Denying the right to vote sends a message that these individuals are second-class citizens. This is hardly a good way to encourage law-abiding behavior. It also suggests that we are still not a full-fledged democracy.


Executive Director, The Sentencing Project

NO Felons shouldn't be allowed to vote until they have completed their sentences, paid restitution, and proved they've learned their lesson.

Automatically restoring felons' right to vote when they've completed their punishment--as 38 states do--isn't in the best interests of felons or the public. Currently, there are 12 states where people convicted of at least some crimes are permanently deprived of their right to vote unless the state grants an exemption to an individual after a waiting period.

The waiting period gives ex-cons a chance to start over and motivates them to establish a track record of responsible behavior. An application process provides the opportunity to review each felon's behavior after release to determine whether he or she has changed his or her ways.

This is important because, according to the Justice Department, the recidivism rate-the rate at which felons commit new crimes--is alarmingly high, more than 50 percent for many types of offenders.

Given that so many felons end up back in jail, having a waiting period is perfectly sensible. Do we really want individuals who have intentionally and knowingly broken the law helping decide with their votes what those laws should be?

Voting rights aren't the only rights felons lose in most states. They also lose their right to run for public office, serve on juries, obtain professional licenses, or own guns. If felons deserve automatic restoration of their voting rights because they've "paid their debt" and it will help "reintegrate" them into civil society, shouldn't all their rights be restored? Felons should have the opportunity--and an incentive--to prove they deserve to regain their right to vote. All too many of them fail that test and go back to prison. States should have the right to decide when, and under what conditions, convicted felons deserve to regain rights they lost as a result of their own wrongdoing.


Senior Legal Fellow, Heritage Foundation



Lexile level: 1230L

Should Felons Be Allowed to Vote?

YES: Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project

NO: Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation

Analyze the Debate

1 Read: Have students read the introduction and the two views.

2 Discuss: Students should answer the following critical-thinking questions, citing evidence from the text:

* What is the issue being debated?

(The issue is whether people convicted of serious crimes, such as those involving theft and/or violence, should be allowed to vote. Many states have laws restricting or denying felons' voting rights.)

* Evaluate why these two authors might be interested in the issue and qualified to comment on it.

(Marc Mauer, arguing the "yes" side, is the director of a group that pushes for reforms to the criminal justice system. Hans von Spakovsky, on the "no" side, works at a conservative research organization that writes about this issue.)

3 Core Skill Practice

Project or distribute Analyzing Authors' Claims, and have students use the activity to analyze and evaluate each author's arguments.

* Analyze Mauer's view. (Mauer argues that punishment for a crime shouldn't deny a person the basic rights of citizenship. He notes that felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects minorities. He says that denying felons voting rights implies that they're second-class citizens, which hardly encourages law-abiding behavior.)

* Analyze von Spakovsky's view. (Von Spakovsky argues for putting in place an application process in which felons who've completed their sentences demonstrate that they've changed their ways. He says that recidivism rates are high for many crimes. He also points out that felons lose other rights, like the right to serve on a jury.)

Extend & Assess

4 Writing Prompt

In an essay, evaluate one debater's arguments. Assess whether the reasoning is valid and whether it's supported with solid evidence. Point out biases or missing information.

5 Classroom Debate

Should felons be allowed to vote? Have students use the debaters' ideas as well as their own in a debate.

6 Vote

Once you've explored both sides of this issue, go online to vote in Upfront's poll--and see how students across the country voted.

Additional Resources

Print or project:

* Analyzing Authors' Claims

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Title Annotation:Debate
Author:Mauer, Marc; von Spakovsky, Hans
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 21, 2016
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