Re-enfranchising ex-felons: an evolutionary perspective

So, what in the news can inspire some thought on closing the two-cultures divide between the physical and social sciences?

Saturday’s New York Times (April 23, 1016) reported that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe “used his executive power on Friday to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons”.   In Virginia, where one in five African-Americans is unable to vote due to felony disenfranchisement, this action is of special importance to the African-American community.  But it can also be placed in the more generic context of historical struggles over the right to vote in the U.S.  I hypothesize that expansions or contractions of the franchise since the founding reflect self-organizing or disorganizing dynamics common in processes of growth or decline throughout the course of biological and in some instances even pre-biotic evolution.

First, a quick historical review of American suffrage: Guided by Locke’s class-oriented principles of “life, liberty and property” and ideologies of male superiority and white superiority, the founders tended to believe that only white males with property were deemed sufficiently responsible to vote, effectively closing the system to an estimated 94% of the population.  The Universal Manhood Suffrage movement managed to extend the vote to all white males by the time of the Civil War.  The Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 would give black men the right to vote, something that actually made some difference in the south until federal troops withdrew from the region in 1876.  By the 1900s, black voter registration was at or near zero in states across the south.  At this time 100 years ago women still could not vote in presidential elections. It took the 19th amendment in 1920 to fix that.  At the time I was going door to door for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, neither I nor a significant number of the some 16,000 U.S soldiers who died that year in Vietnam were “mature enough” to vote because we were under 21.  It would take the 26th Amendment in 1971 to fix that.  In 2013, the Supreme Court in its Shelby County v. Holder ended federal review of voting procedures in states where massive denial of voting rights occurred under Jim Crow.  This morning’s Times (“Federal Judge Upholds North Carolina Voter Rules”) reports that a federal judge in North Carolina upheld a restrictive state law made possible by that Supreme Court ruling that prohibits registration on voting day, reduces the early voting period and cancels other measures intended to make it easier to vote, measures that would be particularly helpful to African-American communities.

So, how is it possible to view the history of suffrage (and events in Virginia) within the context of Darwinian evolution?  An easy way to begin such a clearly speculative proposition (one that avoids making any substantive claims) is to rely on analogies.

There are two physical processes to which I will draw political analogies:

Bifurcations: Physical chemist Ilya Prigogine identified extraordinary transformations of certain chemical compounds. Under certain conditions, the chemicals reach a bifurcation point and self-organize into new, visually striking, more complex patterns.  At a bifurcation point, a system may also become more entropic and dissipate.   Prigogine and others have proposed that such dynamics govern evolutionary growth or decline.

Organization and disorganization: Information theory uses physics’ measure of entropy or disorganization with a negative sign preceding it, effectively defining information as negative entropy or a type of organization.  Mathematically, any informational outcome of choice is a measure of organization whereas the outcome of a single choice (which is to say no choice) is a measure of disorganization (mathematically zero).  In thermodynamics, entropy increase characterizes a closed system.  A negentropic trend, on the other hand, correlates with opening.

In a nutshell, the power restructuring crises introduced by suffrage movements may be said to be analogous to bifurcations.  In response, suffrage systems, to the extent they deny choice, remain closed and foster disorganization. Successful suffrage movements, on the other hand, open the system, enhancing choice and therefore organization. The movement to enfranchise ex-felons and the broader movement to enfranchise prisoners and ex-convicts now present an opportunity to expand choice and organization. But…

…since these are mere analogies, they mean little or nothing.  The question, over the long haul, is whether these types of analogies, after rigorous testing and re-testing, resonate.  If they do, then we may be talking about homologies — not mere analogies of organization and disorganization but the real thing, applied in novel ways to human systems. Then we could claim, as I suggested earlier, that expansions or contractions of the franchise since the founding reflect self-organizing or disorganizing dynamics common in processes of growth or decline throughout the course of biological and in some instances even pre-biotic evolution.

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