By Patrick Healy
Cancel culture has gone too far. Millions have been silenced by the majority. Free speech and dissent have been stifled, entrenched in unfair laws and practices. I’m not sure what Dr. Seuss has to do with it, but five million Americans have had their right to vote legally yanked away after being convicted of felonies: I’m so grateful that conservative patriots are fighting the pervasive evil of cancel culture. Given their brave fight on behalf of Dr. Seuss and Aunt Jemima, they must be equally incensed at the canceling of these Americans.
Back when Gov. Cuomo was just a stodgy old grump most of us tolerated, he said “the right to vote is fundamental and it is unconscionable to deny that basic right of citizenship to New Yorkers who have paid their debt to society.” He should have stopped after “citizenship.” Voting is a basic right of citizenship.
U.S. elections are already a minefield: the Electoral College nightmare, the funky House of Representatives state-seating formula and the conservative-biased Senate are all electoral quagmires. There are 50 different ways to be represented in those bodies, and the territories can’t be represented at all.
The disenfranchisement of 3.5 million territory citizens in federal elections is wrong, but at least they can elect their own local government. True “cancel culture” isn’t in private companies’ exercise of legal rights to suppress employee speech (I thought private control was good?); it’s the unnecessary, immoral and illogical attack on the voting rights of 1 in 45 adult Americans.
To protect them from being taken advantage of, young people and some mentally incapacitated people can’t vote. Though I think the minimum voting age should be lowered and that mental incapacitation disenfranchisement is questionable, these restrictions at least have their basis in protection, whereas felon voting laws are totally for punishment.
Our penal system doesn’t make a lot of sense (but it does cost a lot of cents). Judges and legal scholars argue that many disagreements citizens have with government should be addressed through a vote rather than a lawsuit. The problem is that everyone else is allowed to redress the government through the courts and voting, but felons only get the first half.
We live in a democracy, so we can’t always have our way. But we do get to have our voices heard on issues that directly affect us — that’s the justification for representing 435 separate districts instead of electing 435 at-large Representatives. If a Congressman represents farmers, you can bet they’ll fight for laws that benefit farmers, regardless of other policies or the harm to others.
This same calculus somehow doesn’t apply to the representation of citizens convicted of a felony. Oh no, we don’t want politicians to cater to those Americans, since all they want is to help themselves get out of prison regardless of other policies or the harm to others. Besides — the argument continues — they chose to commit the crime knowing that they could lose their vote. Vermont and Maine, which don’t disenfranchise felons at all, must then be cesspools of crime.
What if they’re innocent, or the law they were convicted under is unfair? If they were convicted wrongly, they at least deserve to retain suffrage. If the law they were convicted under is unfair, the only way to change that is by changing the lawmakers — altruism rarely exists in politics, so those convicted of a felony need their own piece of power to do this.
Even if they are truly guilty, even if the law is morally airtight, all people deserve the right to vote. People who commit felonies aren’t generally good people. Duh. Our antagonism goes beyond simple political disagreement — the difference between someone who commits a felony and someone who doesn’t is larger than the difference between a Democrat and a Republican — but we shouldn’t cancel their voice just because we don’t like them.
Locking those convicted of a felony in prison and stripping them of their power means that politicians don’t have to care about them. In fact, they can use the underpaid prison labor of these “duly convicted” slaves (13th amendment) to appease their constituents and donors. The fear of unified retribution at the ballot box can discourage politicians from targeting any one group: Americans with a felony conviction have no voice, so it’s no wonder politicians don’t respect them.
Everybody’s current interests must be given equal weight in order to address their current needs — even if those needs are self-interested — and to balance each other’s power out. The more people who can vote, the less ability each of us has to control the other.
There’s a reason nobody takes the non-voting delegates from the territories and D.C. seriously within Congress. However strong or eloquent their speeches, they don’t matter. There’s no reason to care about non-voters or to take them seriously, because their voices carry no weight. In the same way, you never see candidates visiting territories during the presidential election, and you hardly ever see them visiting prisons.
Disenfranchisement should be off limits as punishment because unless you can vote for them (or give them money), politicians have no reason to care about you. The land of the free-plus-a-few-million could maybe reduce its prison population, which overrepresents minorities, by repealing restrictive voting policies.
There can only be two reasons for our bloated incarceration rate: it’s either an internal factor (Americans are naturally inclined towards crime), or an external one (something about our laws and policy choices). Policies and politicians rarely change overnight, but one piece of the puzzle can be solved quickly.
Florida disenfranchised 10% of voters in 2020 (doesn’t that make you feel warm and fuzzy knowing how critical Florida is in our elections?). It’s often not clear who gets suffrage back or when or how they can. Many states make it cumbersome to re-enroll, and some permanently disenfranchise even after parole and probation. Because of the confusing laws, says Dr. Alec Ewald of the University of Vermont, many felons simply assume they are disenfranchised, and they are never corrected or given the chance to vote.
New York, which limits felon voting while in prison or on parole, could join Vermont and Maine in allowing politicians to fight on behalf of all their citizens — not just those we approve of — by striking felon disenfranchisement laws off the books. To think ending cancel culture takes just a law.