If the price of getting a bill that addresses some Republican concerns about voter fraud (most notably an ID requirement) is the re-enfranchisement of felons who have completed their sentences, it should be paid gladly — and not simply because it’s some Machiavellian bargaining chip. It also happens to be the right thing to do.
Close to five million Americans are currently barred from voting because of felony convictions. Of this number, nearly two million have completely paid their debt to society in the form of time served behind bars, parole, and probation. There is no legitimate moral argument for denying those who have regained their status as free citizens through public penance the most basic right of a citizen.
It has been made painfully obvious both why Democrats are pushing re-enfranchisement as well as why Republicans oppose it. Two of the Democratic senators who walked the Count Every Vote Act of 2005 to the Senate floor last week — John Kerry and Hillary Clinton — both desperately want to be president and believe there is a Democratic advantage inherent in the felon vote.
Clearly, Republicans have sensed this as well. Dave Gibson, writing for American Daily, noted that Clinton is pushing this bill primarily “because she knows that 99.9 percent of [felons] would vote Democratic and would be just the boost she needs for her 2008 Presidential bid.” Further, and larger in scope, when the Chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, Marty Connors, got wind of a 2003 bill to loosen restrictions on felons’ voting rights he was quite forthright as to why he opposed such a measure.
“There’s no more anti-Republican bill than this,” Connors said. “As frank as I can be, we’re opposed to it because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.”
Well, allow me to engage in a bit of frankness myself: That is nothing approaching a good enough reason to disenfranchise a sizable chunk of the American population. The true measure of a principled person or party is not and will never be determined by its willingness to take only those actions from which they themselves benefit. It is measured by standing up for what is right whatever the consequences may be.
If Republicans can get a few of their own ballot box reforms instituted through Democratic efforts to re-enfranchise ex-felons, great. If not, it needs to be done anyway.
Further, there is evidence suggesting that the American public at large does not take such a political view of the issue. A July 2002 Harris poll found that 80 percent of Americans believe that all ex-felons who have completed their sentences should be allowed to vote. Sixty percent believed that felons finished with their sentence but on probation or parole likewise should have the right to vote.
ASIDE FROM THE POLITICAL implications, opposition to re-enfranchisement seems to rest on two foundations. The first is tradition. Felons have been disenfranchised since the birth of the republic, so why change things up now? And it’s true. But it is also worth remembering that these restrictions were first instituted during a time when only somewhere in the neighborhood of six percent of the citizenry could vote. (Obviously, this does not include the one million slaves held at the time could not even claim their own bodies as property, never mind the sort of property that “earned” you voting rights back then.) Voting laws have changed considerably since then, with barely any other restriction left standing.
It’s also true that we restrict gun rights for ex-felons — something that is much more popular but likewise of dubious value with regard to nonviolent offenders. Nevertheless, these restrictions are not one and the same. A gun is not a ballot, and confusing the two is not helpful in facilitating an honest debate on the issue.
The second foundation is a disturbing element of dehumanization which turns every felon into something more akin to a vile lecherous beast than a human being. As noted above, this is not the view of anything approaching the majority of Americans. Still, there’s a dripping sarcasm that runs through nearly every polemic issued against re-enfranchisement suggesting that those who support such a policy want to aid and abet child molesters, terrorists, and murderers.
But a felony is not what it once was in America, as is made painfully obvious by the 600 percent jump in incarceration rates over the last 30 years. Indeed, it can and should be argued that a standard which permanently disenfranchises anyone who commits a non-violent felony — of which there are now legion — is cruel and unusual. Can any reasonable person say a non-violent drug offender should have his voting rights curtailed for the rest of his life? How about someone who once wrote a series of bad checks? Or even on the violent end of things, once engaged in an ill advised bar fight? Are we really ready to tell these people no matter what they do they can never be trusted by society again? That there is no way to reform after even a minor youthful indiscretion?
Hyperbolically screaming, opponents of re-enfranchisement for ex-felons make monsters out of men, because it lends easy justification to an abridgement of rights that would not hold up under individual scrutiny. The truth is, the real monsters are largely either still in jail or under onerous probation requirements and will not likely be able to vote anytime soon. It’s high time the rest of these men and women who have served their time are released from the caricature. The punishment does not fit the crime, and no matter which way it is spun, permanent disenfranchisement will never be compatible with a just society.
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