Historic Beliefs About Criminal Records and Voting

Taking away voting rights to punish criminal behavior has a long history in European and Ancient Roman law. It was used as a type of “civil death” as a punishment or means to discourage future crime. When American states began to put felon disenfranchisement into their constitutions in the late 18th century, the laws were intended to punish misbehavior and enforce social discipline.

19th Century Disenfranchisement

Before the Civil War, most states had laws that kept people convicted of “infamous crimes” from voting. There was some disagreement about the definition of an “infamous crime,” but most states included electoral bribery as a reason for disenfranchisement.

Other crimes that might keep citizens from voting were forgery, perjury, betting on elections and “high crimes All crimes — some felonies and some not — that go harshly against the morality of the country and misdemeanors Minor criminal violations.”

During the 1800s, there was little debate about taking the vote from people in prison or people with felony records. There was a powerful belief that only “worthy and moral persons” should vote — and people with felonies were labeled as immoral people.

Court Precedent

One Alabama Supreme Court decision described keeping people with criminal convictions  from voting as “preserving the purity of the ballot box,” and explained that people would lose confidence in elections if “dirty” criminal votes contaminated “clean” votes. Others worried that if they enfranchised people with criminal histories, those citizens might somehow band together to repeal criminal laws.