12 February 2021

Tom Theuns and Andrei Poama, Leiden University: “Far from banning prisoners from voting or making it difficult for them to vote, we think democratic governments should legally oblige felons to vote and call them to account if they don’t. Advocates of felon disenfranchisement sometimes argue that depriving felons of their right to vote allows democracies to affirm the importance of basic values, like equality and trust. If you decide not to live by society’s rules, they argue, you forfeit the right to have a say in how society is run. We disagree. … The right to vote is fundamental to democracy. It should not be seen as a favour or a privilege that depends on other people’s goodwill. Other citizens or unelected judges shouldn’t be in a position to deprive us of such rights; this makes all our voting rights more fragile. When people violate the values we hold dear by committing crimes, democracies should double down. Whereas criminal disenfranchisement communicates to felons that they are second-class citizens, compulsory criminal voting reinforces the idea that democratic rights are an important responsibility. If we think criminals see themselves as above the law, compulsory criminal voting sends a strong message that felons are fellow citizens, that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not. … The fear of certain disadvantaged groups heading to the polls should tell us something about the legitimate complaints these groups have. Such complaints should be heard.”