The Felon’s Franchise


Attorney General Eric Holder is urging states to overturn laws that bar people convicted of felonies from voting. How many Americans do these laws affect? Quite a few:

Nearly 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to felony disenfranchisement laws. Moreover, the bulk of disenfranchised felons—75 percent—are no longer in prison. Approximately 2.6 million of those remain disenfranchised despite having completed all parts of their sentence (prison time, parole, probation) because they live in states that bar felons from the polls for life. …

Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects people of color. Black men are incarcerated at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. According to the Urban Institute, 11.4 percent of African American men aged 20 to 34 were in prison in 2008, compared with just 1.8 percent of white men. One out of every 13 black Americans of voting age can’t vote due to criminal disenfranchisement laws, a number much higher than for any other demographic. This ratio is more stark in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, where more than 1 in 5 black adults is barred from the polls. Overall, 2.2 million black Americans have lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws.

Roger Clegg brings up the usual objections:

[Holder] conveniently ignores the reason for felon disenfranchisement, namely that 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.

But Kevin Drum thinks restoring their rights is pretty fundamental to democracy:

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.

A probationary period of some kind is probably reasonable. But once you’re released from prison and you’ve finished your parole, you’re assumed to have paid your debt to society. That means you’re innocent until proven guilty, and competent to protect your political interests in the voting booth unless proven otherwise. No free society should assume anything different.

Meanwhile, Rick Hasen notes how resistant conservatives are to early voting, which would also expand the franchise:

[C]onservative critics of early voting runs don’t just mistrust early voters; they mistrust voters in general. As I explained here, there is a fundamental divide between liberals and conservatives about what voting is for: Conservatives see voting as about choosing the “best” candidate or “best” policies (meaning limits on who can vote, when, and how might make the most sense), and liberals see it as about the allocation of power among political equals. Cutting back on early voting fits with the conservative idea of choosing the “best” candidate by restraining voters from making supposed rash decisions, rather than relying on them to make choices consistent with their interests.

Beinart points out the contradiction between the GOP’s desire to attract more black votes and its efforts to restrict voting:

Do the Republicans pushing these restrictions really want to keep blacks from voting? Not exactly. The more likely explanation is that they want to keep Democrats from voting. As the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania state legislature said in 2012, the requirement for voter ID “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

The problem, of course, is that limiting Democratic voting means limiting African-American voting. And in a country that for much of its history denied African Americans the right to vote, pushing laws that make it harder for African Americans to exercise that right touches the rawest of nerves. As long as many African Americans feel the GOP doesn’t want them to vote, it’s unlikely anything the GOP says to African Americans is going to have much positive impact.