Does the Social Contract Justify Felony Disenfranchisement?


The right to vote is the foundation of a democratic society and essential to active citizenship in the United States. The 2000 Presidential Election, decided by a mere 537 votes in Florida, epitomized the principle that every vote matters. However, nearly every state has adopted laws restricting the right to vote. By virtue of having broken the law, felons lose their right to vote and the ability to participate in selecting a politician to represent them, and are muted from most forcefully voicing their opinion of the policies and laws to which they will be subjected. Philosophers have long debated the merits of restricting the franchise to those who faithfully obey the laws. Social contract theorists like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau envision a compact wherein citizens consent to be governed by and submit to the laws of society in return for theprotections and benefits that an organized governmental structure provides. These philosophers also considered how to handle citizens who reject the compact and violate the laws of society. By rejecting society’s lawabiding structure and design, does the criminal relinquish his membership in society and his right to choose the leaders and policies in the future? This note will examine various social contract theories and explore the arguments for and against disenfranchising felons upon their return to society. Is the political disenfranchisement of felons consistent with the philosophical principles on which the United States of America were formed? Can felon disenfranchisement be reconciled with various conceptions of social contract theory?


Disfranchisement, Social contract, Voting rights, United States



Eli L. Levine (Washington University School of Law)



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