If any autocratic country announced that it was instituting free elections but banning participation by ex-prisoners, Americans of all political beliefs would be suspicious. What would the right to vote mean if it were withheld from dissidents in Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, or any nation that routinely imprisons citizens for their political beliefs?
It’s a kind of American exceptionalism that says it’s OK for us to take the right to vote away — forever — from citizens who have served time in prison. We’re just not the kind of society where leaders would abuse the system by putting opponents in prison just to disqualify them from participating in politics. We don’t have political “dissidents.” Of course, we’re just not the kind of society where private gun ownership would be banned either, but plenty of people are convinced that we’re one step away from the ATF going door to door to confiscate hunting rifles.
Post-release restrictions on voting, including the lifetime ban on voting by ex-felons in 11 states (see PDF), are in the news because U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this week called for their elimination. ThinkProgress’s Nicole Flatow reports:
In the United States, some 5.8 million Americans can’t vote because they have a current or previous felony conviction — more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states. That figure includes one in 13 African American adults. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, one in five African Americans are barred by these felon disenfranchisement policies, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.
Citing these figures and many others, Holder called out state laws that block ex-felons from voting as a vestige of Reconstruction-era voter suppression, and called for for states to repeal every law that prohibits those who have completed their sentence from voting. Holder’s address Tuesday morning at a criminal justice reform symposium is the latest in his “Smart on Crime” initiative that has included scaled back prosecution of crimes with mandatory minimum sentences, less targeting of those complying with state marijuana laws, diversion out of prison and improvement of offender re-entry, and a move to cut short the sentences of some drug offenders.
Holder also noted that felony convicts who had their voting rights restored after completing their sentences were three times less likely to end up back in the criminal justice system, according to data from a Florida parole commission.
Ex-convicts are presumed to lean Democratic in their political beliefs, since they are disproportionately poor and non-white. But one of the strongest advocates for restoring voting rights is Republican Sen. Rand Paul, at least where non-violent crimes are concerned. Paul is working on a bill that would allow those who have completed sentences for non-violent crimes to vote in federal elections, regardless of state law, according to The Hill. The proposal is not likely to win widespread Republican support, but it is part of a bipartisan trend toward reforms to better integrate ex-convicts into society as a way to reduce recidivism. The Washington Post notes that Texas, of all states, is a leader in this movement, which includes better post-release supervision and removing questions about felony convictions from job applications. (See “Ban the Box” laws.)
One of the strongest objections to Holder’s campaign is from Center for Equal Opportunity president Roger Clegg, writing in the National Review Online:
If you aren’t willing to follow the law, then you can hardly claim a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote. We have certain minimum, objective standards of responsibility, trustworthiness, and commitment to our laws that we require of people before they are entrusted with a role in the solemn enterprise of self-government. And so we don’t allow everyone to vote: not children, not noncitizens, not the mentally incompetent, and not people who have been convicted of committing serious crimes against their fellow citizens.
Clegg suggests that Holder is playing “the race card” by highlighting how many black Americans have been disenfranchised. (Last October a coalition of civil rights groups released a report estimating that 7.7 percent of the adult African-American population have lost the right to vote, compared with 1.8 percent for other citizens.) Clegg favors restoring voting rights on a case-by-case basis, “once a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf.”
But this remedy assumes a criminal-justice system that’s blind to not only race but also socioeconomic status. Having a felony conviction can be devastating for one’s chances in securing employment, decent housing, assistance in resuming an education, etc. It is such a stigma that many actors in the criminal justice system — citizens deciding whether to report crimes, prosecutors, judges, juries — hesitate to impose it on individuals with otherwise promising futures. Others don’t get the benefit of the doubt. (“If he’s not guilty of this, he’s guilty of something else” can be the attitude.) There are already enough opportunities for arbitrary outcomes without adding the restoration of voting rights to the list.
I believe the right to vote is on the same level as free speech and fair trials. And no one suggests that released felons should be denied either of those. In fact, they can't be, because those rights are enshrined in the Constitution. Voting would be on that list too if it weren't for an accident of history: namely that we adopted democracy a long time ago, when the mere fact of voting at all was a revolutionary idea, let alone the idea of letting everyone vote. But that accident doesn't make the right to vote any less important.