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Restoring Voting Rights To Felons Is The Right Thing To Do

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Restoring Voting Rights To Felons Is The Right Thing To Do


Of all the consequences of the nation’s decades-long infatuation with building more and more prisons and locking up more and more citizens, perhaps the most curious is this: More than 4 million Americans who have been released from prison have lost their right to vote, according to the non-profit Sentencing Project.

Even after men and women have served their time — after they have paid their debt to society, as the cliche goes — most states restrict their franchise. It’s an odd idea: Those men and women are harmless enough to release onto the streets, but they can’t be trusted to vote. They have finished serving their sentences, but they are barred from full citizenship.

A disproportionate number of those second-class citizens are black. Because black Americans, particularly men, are locked up at a higher rate than their white peers, this peculiar practice falls heavily on them. Nationwide, one in every 13 black adults cannot vote as the result of a felony conviction, as opposed to one in 56 non-black voters, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates for alternatives to mass incarceration.

It’s undemocratic, it’s unfair and it’s un-American. While ancient Greek and Roman codes withdrew the franchise from those who had committed serious crimes, most Western countries now see those codes as outdated.

Recognizing that, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, used his executive power earlier this month to sweep away his state’s laws limiting the franchise for felons. With that action, about 200,000 convicted felons who have completed their prison time and finished parole or probation are now eligible to vote.

McAuliffe noted that Virginia’s law — one of the nation’s harshest and embedded in a Civil War-era state constitution — didn’t hobble the voting rights of black citizens through mere coincidence. That was its purpose. McAuliffe’s staff came across a 1906 report in which a then-state senator gloated about several voting restrictions, including a poll tax and literacy tests, that, he said, would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years,” according to The New York Times.

You’d think that McAuliffe’s fellow Virginia politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, would celebrate his decision. Eliminating barriers to the franchise — especially those with obviously racist roots — can only polish the state’s image and strengthen the civic fabric.

But GOP leaders have objected, accusing McAuliffe of “political opportunism” and a “transparent effort to win votes.” Well, OK. Let’s stipulate that politicians are usually in the business of trying to win votes.

Having conceded that, though, isn’t restoring the voting rights of men and women who have served their time a good idea? If a crime renders a man beyond the boundaries of civilized society, he should be imprisoned for the rest of his life. Otherwise, his crime shouldn’t place him in an inferior caste, without the privileges of full citizenship.

Curiously, though, many conservatives seem to disagree. After Democrat Steve Beshear, then Kentucky’s governor, issued an executive order last year similar to McAuliffe’s, his Republican successor, Matt Bevin, overturned it. Bevin signed a law allowing felons to petition judges to vacate their convictions — a bureaucratic hurdle not easily overcome. Maryland’s GOP governor, Larry Hogan, vetoed a bill to restore voting rights to felons, but the Democratically controlled legislature overrode him.

Those Republican governors are simply following the party’s script, which has focused for the last several years on ways to block the ballot, starting with harsh voter ID laws. While advocates of such laws claim they are meant to protect against voting fraud, the sort of in-person fraud they would prevent hardly exists.

The real motivation for GOP lawmakers is to restrict the franchise from people unlikely to vote for them — especially people of color and millennials. Rather than campaign on a platform that attracts support, they rely on barriers to voting.

That’s wrong. The strength of American democracy depends on persuading more citizens that their votes count; carelessly — or intentionally — disenfranchising those with whom you disagree rends the civic fabric, distorts the political process and stokes the flames of discontent.

We surely don’t need more of that in this political season.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.

Photo: Peer 1 client James J. looks at the federal prison during a blind faith trust exercise in Englewood, Colorado September 15, 2015.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Cynthia Tucker Haynes

Cynthia Tucker Haynes, a veteran newspaper journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, is a Visiting Professor of Journalism and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Georgia. She is also a highly-regarded commentator on TV and radio news shows.

Haynes was editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper for 17 years, where she led the development of opinion policy. More recently, she was that newspaper’s Washington-based political columnist. She maintains a syndicated column through Universal Press Syndicate, which is published in dozens of newspapers around the country. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007, Haynes has also received numerous other awards, including Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists.

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  1. dtgraham April 29, 2016

    For a moment, I misunderstood when I first heard about this story during the week. I thought it was about granting prisoners the right to vote, which is a common practise around the world. Largely in Europe but elsewhere as well. That free people who have completed their sentence are barred from voting for life, is simply amazing and unacceptable. What other words to use?

    1. Jmz Nesky May 2, 2016

      By refusing that right it only makes a mockery of the word, ‘rehabilitation’.. I can agree that it should be on a case-by-case basis but on the other hand it SHOULD be done..I’m considered a felon because I was caught with a little over an ounce of marijuana on me (for use, not for sale).. I did my time, paid my debt to society and still believe I did nothing wrong yet not only can’t I vote, I’m barred from jury duty (not a bad thing if you think about it).. Barred from the military, barred from civil service like police, fireman, and city/county work, postal service and any job that requires a criminal background check.. I can’t carry a loaded fingernail clipper nor a realistic looking water pistol.. All because I chose to indulge in a substance that the voters once down thumbed and the law determined was worse than heroin.. Then on a daily basis I read about DWI’s causing wrecks and deaths for the umpteenth time and receiving probation so that they can continue to indulge in all the things that I’m forbidden to do. Think about this.. If guns were outlawed, imagine how many felons would be out on the streets who could no longer vote.. The g’ment could do this with the right amount of votes and a gung-ho justice system, just as they did with marijuana.. Would you as a gun owner feel you were doing anything wrong? Then after doing your time and branded a felon, would you think it was right to take away parts of your unalienable rights? I didn’t think so.

  2. greenlantern1 April 29, 2016

    Our ONLY, convicted, attorney-general was Nixon’s first, John Mitchell!
    Our ONLY VP, to enter a plea bargain, was Nixon’s first, Spiro Agnew!
    Remember Chuck Colson?
    Our ONLY president, to receive a pardon, was Nixon!
    That “law and order”?

  3. rogerclegg April 29, 2016

    If you aren’t willing to follow the law
    yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else,
    which is what you do when you vote. The
    right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a
    case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned
    over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most
    people who walk out of prison will be walking back in. Read more about this issue on our website
    here [ http://www.ceousa.org/voting/voting-news/felon-voting/538-answering-the-challenges-to-felon-disenfranchisement ] and our congressional testimony here: [ http://judiciary.house.gov/_files/hearings/pdf/Clegg100316.pdf

    1. dtgraham April 29, 2016

      From your link: “We don’t let everyone vote–not children, not noncitizens, not the mentally incompetent.”

      The mentally incompetent vote, or else the Republicans would have no votes.

      Violent felons right now can buy guns online and at gun shows without background checks and no questions asked. There’s a huge loophole in gun laws that the NRA and the Republican party fully support, you hypocrite. Federal law may technically prohibit felons from purchasing or receiving guns unless their rights have been formally restored, but felons can get around this obstacle very easily by buying guns from sellers who don’t require criminal background checks.

      Your type has no problems with that. Read this and weep.

      Republicans are deathly afraid of stripping people of their constitutional rights as long as it involves guns. Not voting though. This is just one in a very, very, long laundry list of things to keep the total vote count down while targeting suspected Democrat voters as much as possible.

      There’s a fantasy among the right that all ex-prisoners will vote Democrat, ignoring the toothless uneducated hillbillies in the south that are attached at the hip to the Republican party. Of course those hillbillies are thought of as white, while the ex-cons are thought of as black in the minds of the political right. Am I right?


  4. Otto T. Goat April 29, 2016

    Democrats welcome the rapist vote.

    1. dtgraham April 29, 2016

      Damn straight. That’s our vote Otto. Liberals are going to keep forcefully thrusting our opinions onto you over and over again, until we’re finally satisfied.

      1. Melissargoslin4 April 30, 2016

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      2. David April 30, 2016

        That’s right! Remember…vote early and vote often!

        1. dtgraham May 2, 2016

          Violet Sullivan upvoted Otto. Give that some thought.

  5. Otto T. Goat April 29, 2016

    “A disproportionate number of those second-class citizens are black. Because black Americans, particularly men, are locked up at a higher rate than their white peers”

    That’s because blacks commit crimes at a much higher rate than whites.

  6. makikijoe May 3, 2016

    In two states, Vermont and Maine, incarcerated people are allowed to vote. It should be that way in all states. A person don’t lose their citizenship just because of being in jail. I wish some courageous members of Congress were willing to sponsor such a bill and make it a national cause. I believe it is not likely to pass in this Republican controlled Congress. Still, such a bill should be introduced anyway. It could get the issue out there, open for public discussion.


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