With Modest Proposal
The Texas Civil Rights Review has signed a petition asking that prisoners no longer be denied their rights to vote.
Like many folks, your editor for decades held the position that the
violation of some ‘social contract’ could serve as moral grounds for
denying convicted felons their rights to participate in elections.
But what is a ‘social contract’? And does a felony conviction
fairly count as the sole criterion for judging that someone has broken
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To skim an easy example from Texas headlines these days, let’s consider
the elected representatives of the legislature, and the role they are
supposed to play in the ‘social contract’, if there is such a thing.
Because, if there is such a thing as a ‘social contract’, one would think that the
state legislature would be the most likely place to look for people who
If there is a ‘social contract’, then, state legislators would be the
ones morally obliged to say things like: ‘look, we have a "social
contract" to keep with the children of Texas, etc.’ Then they would pass an income tax, and go home for the summer.
I skim the example, not to get back into all the cruddy history of the
Texas state legislature, especially when it comes to their stewardship of
education. I just use the example of the legislature’s track record in
to show how, if there is a ‘social contract’, and if breaking it were
sufficient grounds to deny someone the right to vote, then how would we
begin to apply the enforcement of such a rule, fairly, across
If breaking a ‘social contract’ is grounds to revoke a person’s right
to vote, then state legislators ought to lead by example, and revoke
their own voting rights next week. How’s that for a modest proposal?
So the argument that prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to vote, because
they broke their ‘social contract’, is an argument that runs into all
kinds of Civil Rights problems, if you take the equal protection clause
of the 14th amendment to be a central premise of civil rights logic.
But to be honest about it, the flaw of the ‘social contract’
justification was not what really prompted your humble editor to
re-think voting rights for prisoners. More persuasive has been
the trend over my adult lifetime for lawmakers across the USA to
education with incarceration as the great hope of domestic tranquility.
The first time I heard Angela Davis make the argument, I was
startled. She said (I forget exactly which time) that if you
compare the political economy of the prison population today, with the
slave population of 1860, then you get a pattern that expresses some
deep, visceral structure of American power relations.
In fact, at no time in American history have we been able to produce a
sharable system of freedom and justice for all. Seen in this light,
the legislature’s failure this summer to provide
excellent education (let’s face it, for poor kids and brown kids and
black kids) is not simply to be chalked up to conflicting personalities
between three old white men. The failure is deeply structural.
Or put it this way: let’s suppose some court declared the Texas highway
speed limits unconstitutional, and then ordered the legislature to fix the
system, or face the closure of all highways. And suppose at the end of
two regular sessions, with half a dozen special sessions in between,
the result came out that nothing had yet been resolved, and Texans were
told that come October, the highway system would be shut down.
Hang with your humble editor, dear reader. The point is just about done. Now suppose we had some political analysis
that said, well, we have three ornery white guys who just can’t get
their egos (or whatever the folks at PinkDome call that thing) lined
up. Would we be just sitting back, reading that account, and
shaking our heads?
Or even worse–would we be expecting any of these guys to be remotely considering campaigns for re-election?
At times like this I think of my cat, Princess. She is such a
bearutiful and clever creature. Sometimes, if I get busy typing
or reading, and I forget to feed her promptly on time, she has this way
of slipping. She just walks across the table and her foot slides,
ever so accidentally of course, right down onto some fleshy surface,
and ouch! Oh my god, she is such an artist when it comes to
slipping up in just the right way at the right time.
No, to get back to the story, the ability of the legislature to
fumble this ball over and over again, with everybody watching, shaking
their heads, and wringing their hands, speaks to our collective
character as a state population, because goddammit, it’s who we deeply
are. We are not ashamed of these guys, because we have no shame when it comes to our own faith in education.
And part of this structure of our collective personality involves the
criminalization and incarceration of the very same people who we never
believed we should share anything with anyway.
And that’s why prisoners should not be denied their right to vote.
But there is still one argument more. It has to do with
consequences of social drift. When public policy drifts into
criminalization, and when the felons are at the same time deprived of
their rights to vote, then the politicians who are most reponsible for
the trend have no consequences to fear, because they are busy
disenfranchising their most likely critics.
The trend is reinforced when rural, white populations compete for
prison-related opportunities, importing populations into their counties
who will have no say whatsoever in local elections. Again, as
with politicians, thinly populated rural communities might think twice
about importing swing voters, and, when it comes to prison policy,
thinking twice is really what we need more of.
So, given the incoherence of the ‘social contract’ argument, given the
visceral traditions in America (and in Texas) that continue to
perpetuate ugly structures of power, and given the one-way direction in
which these consequences tend to be dumped–these reasons give us
sufficient warrant to sign a petition asking that prisoners be restored
their rights to vote.
[PS, sorry, I realize Sunday sermons should not use the GD word.
But if we really are the collective character that our legislature is
reflecting back on us, then too many Sunday sermons have needed improvement anyway.]