In 1999, just five years after the end of the reign of the apartheid government of South Africa, the country’s constitutional court addressed one of the most profound issues facing the new democracy.
The case involved a challenge to the denial of voting rights for citizens incarcerated in South African prisons and raised the fundamental issue of the meaning of democracy, one that was particularly poignant in a society in which such questions had been restricted from public debate. In his written decision for the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Justice Albie Sachs declared, “Rights may not be limited without justification and legislation dealing with the franchise must be interpreted in favour of enfranchisement rather than disenfranchisement.”
Few nations in recent years have considered issues of democracy with as much care as South Africa, so the public policy debates in that nation should be instructive to all. Yet in the United States, many would view the issue of voting rights for prisoners as an alien concept. Despite widespread reform campaigns on the issue of felony disenfranchisement in recent years, public and policymaker discussion on this topic has generally focused on the restoration of voting rights only after completing a felony sentence or in some instances for offenders currently on probation or parole supervision. Yet, as is true for criminal justice policy broadly speaking, disenfranchisement policies in the United States are very much out of line with world standards, and it behooves us to take a fresh look at the rationale and impact of policies that can only be described as aberrant by international norms.
Marc Mauer’s article in the Howard Law Journal makes the argument that felony disenfranchisement policies are inherently undemocratic no matter how applied, including for persons serving prison sentences.
To read the article, download the PDF below.