The criminologist and social theorist Katherine Irene Pettus in her book, Felony Disenfranchisement in America: Historical Origins, Institutional Racism, and Modern Consequences, identifies a few juridical justifications for felony disenfranchisement (losing the right to vote). On one level, disenfranchisement is based on a contemporary interpretation of Lockean contract theory by the American criminal justice system. Locke had originally designated citizenship as intimately tied to the ownership property, and any threat that a person may bring upon another’s property automatically excluded them from participation in civil society. By this logic, contract theory grants the honor of full citizenship only to those who have not been convicted of crimes—those people who have rendered no threat to the ownership and distribution of property. Because the right to vote is tied up in the concept of citizenship, felony conviction would automatically disqualify one from the right to vote.
Pettus also describes the “communitarian” justification for felony disenfranchisement. This justification holds that a voting ex-convict would have a polluting effect on the purity of the American electoral process. In a specific sense, lawmakers fear that ex-convicts are more likely to commit election fraud and related crimes if they are permitted to vote. In a more general sense, the communitarian justification argues that, even in the absence of direct criminal activity in regard to elections, ex-criminals are much more likely to vote for politically corrupt candidates and thus threaten the fabric of American democracy. These claims, Pettus maintains, are based on the rationalization that the integrity of the electoral process must be protected at all costs against those individuals who have already demonstrated a tendency toward anti-social behavior.
Finally, through the combined logic of these two justifications for disenfranchisement, former felons also risk being excluded from the equal protection clause of the US Constitution. If an ex-criminal is de facto denied citizenship by an elimination of their suffrage, then they similarly do not enjoy the same protections offered to American citizens under the Constitution. This interpretation denies ex-convicts any legal recourse to advocate for their own reintegration into the voting community.