Felony disenfranchisement is to take away someone's right to vote during or after this person is in prison. It appears particularly common in the United States.

What is the aim of such a rule? Is it meant as an additional punishment to the individual involved, or is there a perceived risk of felons organising politically and exerting influence on politics?


6 Answers 6


There are various reasons:

  1. Societal mechanisms - Lower levels of trust.

    This is a common social approach - if someone shows themselves as willing to break the social contract (laws), they have lower level of trust.

    In terms of franchise, it means they can't be trusted with the responsibilities of said franchise - as a concept, not necessarily out of specific "he will vote for a felon organization" fear.

  2. Moral - Punitive.

    Leaving aside whether this is a good idea, or an efficient one; there are definitely people who feel that removing franchise for committing a felony is a just punishment.

  3. Practical - worry about abuse of power.

    This is slightly similar to #1, but whereas #1 was a generic principle over generic trust levels, this one is more about specific consequences.

    To counter your somewhat amused "felons organising politically and exerting an influence on politics" quip, recall that this is exactly what organized crime and corruption does and achieves, from Sicily to Russia. Or going further back, Blues and Greens of Rome.

  • 9
    Your last paragraph is not relevant to the question, because organised crime does not exert its power by organising felons to vote for them. Rather it appears to use extortion, bribes, etc., of influential people. Therefore, disenfranchising felons is not at all effective to counter it. If you have documentation that this is regardless a political motive (one not based on facts), you could add that to your answer.
    – gerrit
    Mar 3, 2015 at 18:46
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    @gerrit - not directly. But honest people are less likely to vote for a corrupt thief compared to someone who already thinks laws are for chumps. Another avenue is being bought for votes - again, having committed a crime, you show you're easier to be corrupted in that way.
    – user4012
    Mar 3, 2015 at 18:52

From this answer on Why allow convicted criminals to vote?, @origimbo gave one reason to allow them to vote as being

protection against the following algorithm:

  1. Win a legislative election.
  2. Pass any law which disproportionately imprisons the supporters of your opponents.
  3. Profit.

conversely, one reason to keep them from voting would be to use this algorithm. @Schwern posted in the comments of the original answer pointing out that the War on Drugs was one case where this was used.


You mentioned this practice in relation to the US; the legal basis at least would be section 2 of the 14th amendment:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.

Felony disenfranchisement was specifically upheld because of this in the case Richardson v. Ramirez.

The legal basis of the practice in the US is sort of an anachronism since a major reason the amendment is worded that way was to help maintain Republican power and suppress the Democrats who were previously part of the Confederacy. So the historical case that actively grants the state this power, came about because the Republicans wanted to more easily maintained political power. This seems like an obvious avenue for them to take since the power to curtail (and expand) voting rights is pretty powerful in a democracy. It granted a legal basis to Republican rule beyond just military occupation of the South.

It's hard to judge the intent of the practice in all individual cases since laws regarding felony disenfranchisement were passed before and after the 14th amendment and the Reconstruction era. But given the history of Jim Crow and poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses meant to restrict voting rights, this practice seems like another obvious way to control voting rights and maintain white supremacy. Sometimes its really obvious, like the 1901 Alabama state constitution that removes voting rights for among other things, "miscegenation", which of course, is itself a crime. Other times we have to look at the results to give us clues about what the intent may have been. For example, when we examine the relative rates of current felony disenfranchisement and where it occurs, the desire to maintain political power and white supremacy via control of voting rights is probably still present:

rate of felony disenfranchisement

  • 3
    Your ultimate and penultimate paragraphs contradict. If the GOP was using the 14th Amendment to crush the Confederacy, it couldn't be doing so to maintain white supremacy. Likewise, poll taxes, literacy tests, miscegenation laws run afoul of the the more known part of the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause. This needs to be reworked a little imo
    – user9790
    Jul 24, 2018 at 16:10
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    @KDog I started of the last paragraph saying that many laws regarding this had been passed before after the 14th. What makes you think I was talking about the same thing wrt to suppressing the Confederacy and suppressing the black vote? The point of mentioning the 14th first was that it shows such a power was explicitly used as political tool. The point of mentioning white supremacy is that there is a history of restricting voting rights in many ways (including felony disenfranchisement) in parts of the country that happen to match up with the current highest incidence of the practice.
    – Teleka
    Jul 25, 2018 at 1:58
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    @KDog The 14th was designed as a political tool to disenfranchise the opposing party. Jim Crow laws and poll taxes were designed as political tools to disenfranchise the opposing party. Disenfranchisement, generally, is used to disenfranchise the opposing party. Hence why Republicans oppose adding DC, or PR, as States, and why Democrats oppose the Electoral College (well, that's not "disenfranchisement" so much as "reducing influence", but it's the same motivation even with a lesser effect)
    – David Rice
    Mar 15, 2019 at 14:22
  • 1
    +1 but please rephrase this answer in one way or another to add a TL;DR. I was scanning through it, and I nearly downvoted it thinking FFS not one word on Jim Crow?!? -- the reference is way too deep in your answer. Suggested summary: The legal basis would be section 2 of the 14th amendment. This was upheld in Richardson v. Ramirez. But the actual reason were the Jim Crow era laws. Apr 8, 2019 at 20:13

So that you can suppress voting among a constituency that does not support you.

Look at the group of people that is disproportionately incarcerated and what are typically their voting intentions.

If you crunch the numbers, you will find that for every single Republican vote removed by felony disenfranchisement, you remove roughly five Democrat votes.


According to Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and a civil rights litigator, one reason for sich a policy is to disenfranchise the black population. She claims it is a form of gerry-mandering by removing the black male population from the citizenry and into the ranks of the incarcerated.

She makes this claim in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colour-Blindness. She claims on current trends around a third of the black male population will be incarcerated. Obviously such a policy is intended to buttress the white supremacy by demographic engineering and hence the Jim Crow in the New Jim Crow.

Such a policy is against the canons of natural justice and is to be condemned.


The scholarship of Montesquieu is particularly apt here:

According to Montesquieu, a necessary condition for the existence of a republican government, whether democratic or aristocratic, is that the people in whom supreme power is lodged possess the quality of “public virtue,” meaning that they are motivated by a desire to achieve the public good. Although public virtue may not be necessary in a monarchy and is certainly absent in despotic regimes, it must be present to some degree in aristocratic republics and to a large degree in democratic republics. Sounding a theme that would be loudly echoed in Madison’s “Federalist 10,” Montesquieu asserts that without strong public virtue, a democratic republic is likely to be destroyed by conflict between various “factions,” each pursuing its own narrow interests at the expense of the broader public good.

From him directly:

When virtue is banished, ambition enters the hearts that are disposed to receive it, and avarice enters all of them. The desires change their objects; what once they loved, they love no longer; they were free under the laws, and now they want to be free to act against them; each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master’s house;...The republic is reduced to mere appearance; and its strength is but the power of a few citizens, and the licence (to commit crime) of all.

Allowing criminals to vote diminishes both civic bonds and what it means to be a citizen precisely because it allows the contagion or criminality a voice and entry as legitimate into the public sphere.

  • 3
    My favorite phrasing of this idea is "Democracy's worst fault is that its leaders are likely to reflect the faults and virtues of their constituents" from Heinlein. Though variations on "Democracy gives you the leaders you deserve" are pretty popular including, as I recall, from Obama.
    – user9389
    Jul 27, 2018 at 17:47
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    @notstoreboughtdirt Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as "bad luck.” Heinlein
    – user9790
    Jul 27, 2018 at 17:50

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