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For He’s a Jolly Good Felon

Hillary's carves out an important base for 2008 -- but are they good fundraisers?

By 6.3.05

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This article appears in the May issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

HILLARY CLINTON IS LEAVING nothing to chance in preparing to run for president. She knows that in the wake of the party's drubbing last year some Democrats remain skeptical she can pull off a cosmetic shift to the middle and appeal to red state voters.

Hollywood mogul David Geffen, a longtime Hillary fan, flatly says he does not think Hillary can win the White House: "In order to run successfully, you have to have more than pure ambition." Even Harold Ickes, the frequent Clinton consigliere, has doubts about whether she can go all the way. "It's something that a lot of us had as an open question about Mrs. Clinton early on," he told the New York Observer, quickly adding that she is now "making all the right moves."

Those include a realization that if the country lacks a natural Democratic majority -- no Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has won more than 50.1 percent of the popular vote -- then it may be necessary, in paraphrase of Bertolt Brecht, to change the electorate. Thus we see Hillary moving front and center as lead sponsor of The Count Every Vote Act, which she says is designed to boost voter participation in future elections -- including the one she will be running in.

Columnist George Will says that Hillary's bill might more aptly be termed the What's a Little Fraud Among Friends? Act. After a nod to making Election Day a national holiday -- which might do little more than create a de facto Saturday to Tuesday four-day weekend -- she gets down to the real business.

The bill makes a mockery of the Constitution's stipulation that the states shall determine "the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections." Under her bill, all states would be dragooned into following new federal standards on mandatory recounts, provisional ballots, and even voter waiting times. Every state would be compelled to offer no-excuse absentee voting as well as Election Day registration. Those changes would be open invitations to fraud. Voters recognize that. They are especially leery of same-day registration; in 2002, electorates in California and Colorado both turned the idea down by three to two margins.

But the meat of the bill is her insistence that every state restore voting rights to all convicted criminals "who have repaid their debt to society" by completing their prison terms, parole, or probation. She disingenuously refers to them as ex-felons, which is incorrect since the law holds that once someone is a felon, he remains one.

Her bill is a breathtaking assertion of federal authority since the 14th Amendment specifically permits states to disenfranchise citizens convicted of "participation in rebellion, or other crime." But the barriers aren't high in most states, and standards vary greatly. Maine and Vermont let jailbirds vote from their prison cells. A total of 34 states and the District of Columbia automatically allow felons who've served their time in prison to vote. Florida and 13 other states require them to petition to have their voting rights restored. Senator Clinton estimates there are now 5 million disenfranchised felons in the country, or one out of every 44 adults.

IT'S HARD TO ESCAPE the partisan implications of Hillary's move towards felon voting. In a 2003 study, sociologists Chistopher Uggen and Jeff Manza found that roughly a third of disenfranchised felons had completed their prison time or parole and would thus have their vote restored under her bill. While only a bit more than a third of felons are African-American, an overwhelming majority do lean towards one political party -- the Democrats. In presidential races, the two scholars estimated that Bill Clinton won 86 percent of the felon vote in 1992 and a whopping 93 percent four years later. Voting participation by all felons, Uggen and Manza estimated, would have allowed Democrats to win a series of key U.S. Senate elections, thus allowing the party to control the Senate continuously from 1986 until at least this January.

There is some evidence that felons already swing elections even in states where many of them are barred from voting. The Seattle Times found that 129 felons in just two counties, King and Pierce, voted illegally in the photo-finish race for governor in Washington state last November. Since Democrat Christine Gregoire won by, coincidentally, 129 votes it appears she owes her election to the felon vote.

The most persistent argument against laws barring felons from voting is that they have their origins in Jim Crow laws passed after the Civil War to prevent blacks from voting. But Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar, author of the classic book The Right to Vote, points out that many states passed such laws before the Civil War. Later, the laws were passed in many Southern states by Reconstruction governments run by Republicans who supported black voting rights. Keyssar says that "most laws that disenfranchised felons had complex and murky origins," often centering on the notion that "a voter ought to be a moral person." As one judge noted: "Felons are not disenfranchised based on any immutable characteristic, such as race, but on their conscious decision to commit an act for which they assume the risks of detection and punishment."

But that notion of individual responsibility is dismissed by liberal academics who sound as if they had just stepped off the Berkeley campus of the University of California circa 1965. Lisa Hull, a professor at Rutgers University, calls the argument that people are responsible for their own behavior "flawed" because "it rids the community at large of any responsibility for the criminal's behavior, and discounts entirely any contribution poverty or racism or inferior educational institutions or drug-ridden neighborhoods might play in fostering antisocial behavior."

Manza and Uggen don't go that far, but they do argue that ending the laws against felon voting might have a positive effect on society. "We don't know whether voting causes reduced crime, but we find a strong correlation," they write. "In our Minnesota data, voters in 1996 were about half as likely to be rearrested from 1997-2000 as non-voters." Of course, extrapolating from Minnesota is a chancy proposition. If all of America were like Minnesota, we'd be a giant Scandinavia. Clearly, much of the country isn't.

Hillary Clinton must understand how much her association with the wacky pro-felon voting community retards her effort to appear as a thoughtful moderate. She must therefore have calculated that the embarrassment of having people make jibes about her wanting to make Democrats the "Jailbird Party" is small compared to the potential political payoff.

Hillary is intent on creating her new majority. It includes her liberal base, some naive moderates, and, should her bill pass, all those Fans of Bill who would have twice overwhelmingly voted for her husband if they'd only had the legal opportunity. She aims to make sure they have it, and in time for 2008.

John H. Fund, The American Spectator's Politics columnist, is author of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy (Encounter Books).

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About the Author

John H. Fund is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of the Stealing Elections (Encounter Books).