A Philosopher's Blog

Felons & Voting

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2016

In 2016 Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe endeavored to restore felons’ voting rights in his state. In the United States, disenfranchising citizens for felony convictions is a common practice and some states extend the disenfranchisement beyond the felon’s criminal sentence.  Since McAuliffe is a Democratic, the Republicans have accused him of engaging in a political move. The gist of the charge is that since felons are disproportionately minorities and minorities tend to vote for Democrats, McAuliffe is trying to get votes for Hillary Clinton. Naturally, he denies this and claims that his motives are pure and noble. Before proceeding to this matter, I will start by addressing the general issue of denying felons the right to vote.

Since I am registered as a Democrat (because Florida is a closed primary state), I might be accused of the same motive as McAuliffe—that I just want felons to vote because they are more likely to vote for Democrats. However, my motive is irrelevant to my arguments, which are as follows.

In the United States, the disenfranchisement of citizens has a constitutional basis in that it is allowed “for participation in rebellion, or other crime.” That is not in dispute.  Also, legality is obviously simply set by the law—but my concern is with the morality of disenfranchising felons and not with what is in the rulebook. After all, history is replete with wicked laws.

In a state that professes to be a democracy, the right of citizens to vote is the bedrock right. As Locke and other philosophers have argued, the foundation of political legitimacy in a democracy is the consent of the governed. As such, to unjustly deny a citizen the right to vote is to attack the foundation of democracy and to erode the legitimacy of the state. Because of this, the only crimes that should disenfranchise are those that would warrant taking away the person’s citizenship. In general, the crime would need to be such that it constitutes a rejection of citizenship. The most obvious example would be treason against the country.

It might be objected that felony level crimes are so bad that they all warrant disenfranchising a citizen. One obvious reply is that the right to vote in the United States is not predicated on being virtuous or even marginally informed or marginally competent. The only requirements are being a certain age and being a citizen. Now, if there were morality or competency tests for having the right to vote (which would be exceptionally problematic in their own right), then a case could be made that felons would fail such tests and thus justly denied this right. However, the right to vote comes with being a citizen and what does not remove citizenship should not take away the right to vote.

A second obvious reply is that while there are truly awful felonies that might seem to warrant disenfranchisement (like committing mass murder), there is a multitude of felonies that do not seem even remotely severe enough to warrant such punishment. After all, the bar for what counts as a felony is often very low indeed. As such, there seems to be no justification for disenfranchising felons for crimes that are not directly relevant to their status as citizens.

Even if disenfranchisement for felonies was justified, some US states extend this beyond the person’s criminal sentence. That is, even after serving their time, some felons are not permitted to vote (although some states permit people to attempt to regain this right). This practice is unjust on the face of it. After all, if the disenfranchisement is part of the punishment for a felony, then the punishment should end when the person has served their sentence. As such, even if voting rights could be justly taken away, their restoration should be automatic upon completion of the sentence. I now turn to the Virginia case.

Not surprisingly, the origin story of disenfranchising felons in Virginia is a tale of explicit racism: the white Democrats of that time explicitly used this a tool to keep black voters from the polls. The tools employed to suppress the black vote also impacted poor white voters, but this was regarded as either an acceptable price to pay or actually a desirable result. Lest anyone rush to take this as evidence of racism on the part of the current Democratic Party; one should consider the history of the Southern Strategy. That said, it is true that the Democrats were once the explicitly racist party and true that the Republican Party was once truly the party of Lincoln. It is also true that I used to routinely run sub 17 minute 5Ks; but that was then and this is now.

Of course, to take the origin of a thing to discredit the thing would be to fall victim to the genetic fallacy. As such, while felony disenfranchisement was explicitly created to disenfranchise black voters, perhaps it serves a legitimate purpose today. While I am certainly open to arguments in favor of disenfranchising people, I am not aware of any compelling moral arguments in its favor. Not surprisingly, the main focus of the debate in Virginia is not over the rightness or wrongness of this disenfranchisement but on the alleged motives of the governor.

As his Republican critics see it, Governor McAuliffe’s efforts to restore the voting rights of felons is motivated by politics. Minorities make up a disproportionate number of convicted felons and minorities tend to vote for Democrats. As such, the charge is that he is trying to help Hillary Clinton and other Democrats win in the 2016 elections by enfranchising more Democrats. In terms of the actual facts, felons are generally more likely to be Democrats, but they also tend to vote at an extremely low rate when their voting rights are restored. As such, the impact of restoring voting rights on an election is in dispute; although Republicans often express terror at the prospect of felons illegally voting.

Assuming that felons are more likely to vote for Democrats, it certainly makes political sense for Republicans to oppose restoring voting rights to felons. However, this is obviously also motivated by politics and thus puts the Republicans on par with the governor. They cannot justly regard him as being wrong in wanting to restore voting rights to gain an electoral advantage when they want to deny these rights to gain their own advantage. From a moral standpoint what is needed is not accusations about motives but actual arguments for or against restoring voting rights.

It might be claimed that motivations do matter. It is true that they do—but they matter in terms of assessing the morality of the person taking an action, not in terms of the morality of the action itself or its consequences. To use a non-political example, if I give money to a flood relief charity in Louisiana only because I want to impress a woman with my alleged generosity and compassion, then my motivation is hardly laudable. However, this does not have any relevance to the issue of whether or not giving to such a charity is the right thing to do or the issue of whether or not it would have good consequences. Those are distinct issues. Returning to the case of restoring voting rights, it could be true that the governor’s real motivation is to advance the interests of his party. It could be true that if he believed felons would be more likely to vote Republican, then he would oppose restoring their right to vote. While his motivations matter when it comes to assessing him morally, they have no bearing on the issue of whether these rights should be restored. Likewise, it could be true that the Republicans oppose the restoration because they believe the felons will tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans. It could even be true that they would fight tooth and nail to restore felon voting rights if they believed that felons would be more likely to vote Republican. Their motivations are relevant to judging them as people; but irrelevant to the issue of whether or not voting rights should be restored.

I do believe that the disenfranchisement of felons is a political tool that is now intended to help Republican candidates. It is but one disenfranchisement tool among the many that are undermining the legitimacy of the United States. As noted above, I also contend that the theft of a citizens voting rights for anything short of a crime on par with treason is morally unjustified and an attack of the very foundation of democracy. Those who believe in democracy and not simply in having their side in power should also oppose disenfranchising felons in particular and the calculated destruction of voting rights in general. At this point I will close by saying that I believe that serious questions can be raised about the legitimacy of a government based on an electoral system that is damaged by systematic disenfranchisement. While I rarely agree with Trump, he is right to claim that the system is broken and needs to be fixed.

 

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Alabama & Voter ID

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2015

In 2011 Alabama passed a voter ID law that would go into effect in 2014. This sort of thing was usually subject to approval from the Justice Department, but the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Some regarded this as reasonable, since voting seemed to be going along reasonably well. This is the same sort of reasoning that indicates that a patient with diabetes should stop taking her insulin on the grounds that her disease is now under control.

Critics of voter ID laws, who are most often Democrats, contend that they are aimed at disenfranchising minorities and the poor. These are the people who generally tend to vote for Democrats. Proponents of voter ID laws, who are most often Republicans, contend that voter ID laws are critical for preventing voter fraud. Since I have written extensively on this matter before, I will simply note that the best evidence shows that voter ID laws do have a negative impact on poor and minority voters. I will also note that voter fraud does occur, but at an incredibly low rate.

Now that Alabama’s voter ID law is in effect, the state seems to have upped its game by stating that driver’s license examiners would no longer be working at thirty one offices in the state. As might be guessed, Alabama officials claim that this is the result of budget cuts and is not intended to make things harder for minority and poor voters (who tend to vote for Democrats) in upcoming elections. It is also most likely a coincidence that this is occurring prior to the 2016 presidential election.

In what must surely be another coincidence eight of the ten counties with the highest percentage of non-white voters will have the license offices closed. These eight include the five counties that voted most strongly for Democrats in 2012. John Merrill, Alabama’s Secretary of State, counters that the state is ensuring that voters can get IDs. All the counties still have Board of Registrars offices and they issue voter ID cards. The state also has a mobile ID office that is supposed to visit all the counties.

While these IDs are available, only 29 IDs have been issued by the mobile offices since the start of 2015 and only 1,442 have been issued in total from all sources.  In response to concerns about these low numbers, Merrill insists that the fault lies with the voters, noting that “you can lead a horse to water. But you can’t make him drink.” He points to the existence of an advertising campaign to inform voters and the availability of the above mentioned IDs.

On the one hand, it is certainly tempting to agree with Merrill. As he noted, voters can get an ID other than a driver’s license and can do so in each county. There as, as he claimed, been a public awareness campaign.

If someone wants to vote in Alabama, it can be argued, then that person should take the effort to learn what she needs to do and make sure that she has the requisite ID. To use an analogy, for each class with a paper, I have a detailed paper guide that shows step-by-step how to do the paper and how it will be graded. I also have three videos on the paper and spend about 45 minutes in a class going over the paper. Despite all that, I always get at least 10% of the class who make it clear (usually by asking things like “so, what is this paper you mentioned?”) they have no idea about the paper. As such, Merrill’s replies have some merit.

On the other hand, there is the concern that the efforts to inform voters are not adequate. People who voted before the new voter ID law went into effect and did not happen to see the advertising campaign are likely to have no idea of the existence of this requirement. Those who are aware of the requirement for an ID might believe that a driver’s license is required and might have no idea that there is even such a thing as a special voter ID available. Even those who are aware of the law and the special IDs might face difficulties in getting an ID. Transportation could be an issue as could making the time to go get the ID.

Some people counter these claims by referencing their own experience. They already have a driver’s license, so they find it hard to believe that others would not have them. They have TV and the internet and free time to watch shows in which the advertising appears. They have their own car and time to do things, so they assume the same is true of other people. This is a natural psychological tendency, but the beliefs based on it can easily be in error. For example, when I was in grad school, I found it easy to get by without a car. It was fairly easy to walk two miles to the grocery store and walk back with a week’s worth of groceries. It was easy to just run or bike to campus. It was easy to run or bike to stores, the bank and other places. So, it would be natural for me to think this would be easy for everyone based on my own experience. However, I was well-aware that what is easy for me could be very hard for someone else in different circumstances.

Some refute these claims by arguing that even if it is not easy or convenient to learn about the special IDs and acquire them, people who want to vote should take the effort to check before every election to make sure of what rule changes might have occurred. These people should then be willing to take the steps needed to be able to vote and then take the steps needed to actually vote—no matter how challenging or inconvenient these things might be.

A reasonable reply to this is that since voting the basic foundation of democracy, the process should be made as easy and accessible as possible.  To do otherwise is to disenfranchise people unjustly. As such, people should not need to keep up with rule changes nor should they have to have an ID to vote.

The usual counter to this takes us back to the start: the concern about voter fraud. It is, I certainly agree, right to take steps to prevent voter fraud. However, as has been established beyond all rational doubt, the amount of voter fraud in the United States is miniscule. The fraud that does occur is also of the sort that voter ID would not prevent. I also accept the principle that it is better to allow a voter to vote fraudulently than to disenfranchise a legitimate voter—especially given that even if a method of fraud prevention did work, it would be preventing an incredibly low number of cases of fraud while most likely disenfranchising a vastly larger number of people.

Since I do like to think well of people, I am willing to accept that the officials in Alabama are acting from the most noble of intentions and, despite the evidence to the contrary, are not trying to take steps to increase the chances of Republican victories. That said, the methods they have chosen will have no real impact on fraud—both because it barely exists and because the voter fraud that occurs is generally not the sort that can be prevented by IDs. These methods will, however, have a negative impact on voters and that is certainly wrong—at least if democracy is accepted as a good.

 

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ACORN

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2008

Recently, ACORN has become a focus of controversy. The main concern is that people employed by ACORN turned in fake voter registration forms (including one for Mickey Mouse and another for Jimmy John-the sandwich shop).  McCain’s campaign is accusing Obama of being involved with ACORN and Obama’s defenders are countering this attack.

The claim that ACORN has turned in fake voter registration forms is true and is not in dispute. It is, however, important to keep the following fact in mind: by law, ACORN cannot decide what forms it will turn in to the officials. After all, it is not up to ACORN or other such voter registration organizations to decide which forms are valid and which are fakes. That is the responsibility of the state. As such, if fraudulent forms are turned into ACORN, they must be turned in to the state.  Of course, there is concern about why ACORN has gathered so many fraudulent forms.

One possibility is that people in ACORN intended to engage in voter fraud by creating a number of fake voter identities and then using them to influence the election. This practice is not unheard of. After all, it used to be joked that the dead were a major voting block in Chicago. As such, it is reasonable to be concerned about attempts at voter fraud.

Of course, there is a big difference between turning in fake voter registration forms and actual voting fraud. For a fake form to enable someone to vote, the form would have to get past the verification process. Further, the person going to cast the vote under a fake identity would need the documentation to support this false identity. As such, if ACORN was going to conduct voter fraud, they would need to take steps to get the fake registrations through the verification process and then get the fake voters through the verification process at the polls. However, the fake forms turned in by ACORN were rather easily spotted and there seems to be no evidence that ACORN has taken steps to prepare the means for fake voters to cast their fraudulent votes. As such, either ACORN was not involved in a conspiracy or it was a rather pathetic one. Then again, perhaps there are fake forms that were cleverly filled out and managed to get through the verification process. This does remain a possibility.

As second possibility is that certain people employed by ACORN created fraudulent voter forms on their own and turned them in to ACORN. Since people are paid to register people to vote and going around to register real voters can be a lot of work, there is a clear incentive for some unethical people to simply fill out forms on their own. As a matter of fact, it has been found that this actually took place in some cases. As such, the fraudulent forms can be explained in this manner without there being a conspiracy on the part of ACORN. While this gets ACORN off one hook, it does raise concerns about who ACORN hires and what steps are taken to ensure that these people follow the law. Given the number of fraudulent forms turned in, it is clear that ACORN and other organizations need to take steps to deal with this problem.