Restoring Voting Rights: A Progressive Goal Conservatives Can Share

Restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentences is a goal that conservatives and progressives can share. And to that point, the Sunshine State may soon be a shining example.

April 3, 2007

Stating "I believe in my heart that everybody deserves a second chance," Florida's Republican Governor Charlie Crist is hoping to announce
this week that Florida will restore voting rights for most people with
felony convictions who have completed their criminal sentences.
Restoration is a long-overdue reform. Nationally, it is also a reform
on which the left and the right increasingly agree.

Still, the relic of disenfranchisement is not entirely without
defenders. In order to effect the change in Florida, Governor Crist
needs the support of two other members of the four-member Board of
Executive Clemency. One of those cabinet members is state Attorney
General Bill McCollum, who took to the op-ed pages of the St. Petersburg Times
yesterday in a misguided attempt to perpetuate the myths and
half-truths propagated by supporters of the status quo. For example, in
a glaring non sequitur allegedly supporting his position, he states
that "more than 70 percent of arrestees test positive for drugs, and studies show that drug traffickers live lives of violence." (emphasis added).

McCollum emphasizes concerns about recidivism but he completely
elides -- or simply misses -- the contradiction of his lamenting that
ex-offenders "would be able to acquire a state-licensed job, whether as
a household pest exterminator, residential building contractor or alarm
system installer." Just as restoring the right to vote reintegrates
individuals into a participatory society -- and thus helps reduce
recidivism -- removing overly-broad barriers to gainful employment
serves democracy and criminal justice alike.

Governor Crist's proposal accelerates a trend that already has
momentum. Since 1997, sixteen states have reduced barriers to voting by
people with criminal records. Leaders embracing the trend span the
political spectrum. Ten years ago then-Texas Governor George W. Bush --
hardly known as soft on crime -- signed a bill into law that restored
voting rights to people who completed their sentences. Likewise, the
bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, which
last fall released its report, "Building Confidence in U.S. Elections,"
agreed that re-enfranchisement of ex-felons is a voting-rights issue,
not a punishment issue, and that states should restore voting rights to
persons who have completed their sentences.

On the left, Iowa Governor Thomas Vilsack issued an
Independence Day Executive Order in 2005 restoring the right to vote to
tens of thousands of Iowans who had completed their sentences. And last
week, the heavily Democratic Maryland legislature passed a bill
restoring the right to vote to 50,000 Maryland citizens, which Maryland
Governor Martin O'Malley is expected to sign into law soon.

Politicians' efforts to restore voting rights have been
surpassed by the political rank-and-file. Last November a majority of
Rhode Island voters approved a ballot measure amending the state
constitution and restoring the right to vote to 15,000 of their fellow
citizens as soon as they are released from prison--even prior to the
completion of supervised release.

The United States is the only democracy in the world that
disenfranchises people who have completed their criminal sentences. By
comparison, in most European nations, some or all prisoners
are entitled to vote. Although the practice of disenfranchisement
predates the Civil War, many states enacted or modified their felony
disenfranchisement laws in the Jim Crow era as a way to suppress the
voting power of black citizens. Make no mistake; the laws continue to
have that effect. Nationwide, 13% of black men are disenfranchised
because of a felony conviction, a rate that is seven times the national
average. In Florida that figure is a startling 18.8%.

It is the role of the criminal justice system, not the
electoral process, to punish individuals based on the severity of their
crime. The durations of criminal sentences reflect agreed-upon societal
norms, and when those sentences are fully completed we should encourage
participation in one of society's most constructive acts. Yet many
states have complex, multi-tiered restoration schemes that predictably
lead to confusion, chilling effects, intimidation, manipulation and
delay. In short, recall Katherine Harris and Florida's "voter cleansing" program
immediately prior to November 7, 2000--a program marked by incompetence
on a Katrina-esque scale and driven by nefariously partisan purposes.

Americans overwhelmingly oppose the political chicanery and
disenfranchisement such systems produce. A 2002 Harris Interactive poll
found that eighty percent of Americans favor returning voting rights to
citizens who have completed their sentences for felony convictions. In
other words, Governor Crist is marching in lockstep with
Americans--liberals and conservatives--who believe in the redemptive
value of second chances.

Restoring voting rights to people who have completed their
sentences is a goal that conservatives and progressives can share. And
to that point, the Sunshine state may soon be a shining example.