Saturday, August 26, 2006

Disenfranchising felons

Roger Clegg has a powerful column today about the movement afoot in quite a few states to give felons the right to vote.
Governors in Iowa and Virginia have unilaterally restored voting rights to many felons, while legislatures in Maryland and Nebraska have liberalized their laws. At the federal level, a bill supported by Sens. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, among others, would force states to allow felons no longer under sentence to vote. That bill is on hold, at least while the Democrats are out of power. But lawsuits in federal courts in Florida, Washington and New York have claimed that depriving felons of the franchise violates the Voting Rights Act.
Of course there is a partisan aspect to this movement. The Democrats figure that criminals are (make your own joke here) their natural constituents.
Most politicians' instincts tell them that these potential voters are likely Democrats, and they're probably right. Profs. Christopher Uggen of Northwestern and Jeff Manza of the University of Minnesota have concluded that, had felons been enfranchised, Al Gore would have been elected in 2000, and the Democrats would have controlled the Senate from the mid-1980s down to the present decade.
Some people legitimately believe that, if a person has done his time, he should be forgiven and welcomed back into society. However, many of those who are behind this movement would love to extend the franchise to felons while they're serving their time. And, as Clegg points out, with recidivism rates of up to 80% of released felons in the decade following their release, perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to judge them as having turned over a complete new leaf.

Clegg addresses the rationale behind the laws we've had since the Founding to disenfranchise felons.
When you vote, you are making the law -- either directly through ballot initiatives or referenda, or indirectly by choosing lawmakers. This participation in self-government requires some commitment to and respect for the rule of law, which not everyone has. We don't let everyone vote -- not children, not noncitizens and not the mentally incompetent, because these classes of individuals do not meet minimum standards of trustworthiness, loyalty and responsibility. Felons? If they aren't willing to follow the law, they don't deserve the right to make law for everyone else.
And the arguments that such provisions are racially discriminatory just don't hold water.
The racial issue is also a red herring. Certainly the disenfranchisement laws do have a disproportionate impact on some racial groups, because there are always going to be more individuals in some groups that commit crimes than in others. That doesn't make the laws racist -- just as they are not sexist simply because more men than women commit crimes.

Today's laws restricting or prohibiting felons from voting have their roots in ancient Greece and Rome, came to the American colonies from Britain, were adopted without any racist intent, and are not applied discriminatorily. As far as the Constitution is concerned, section two of the great, post-Civil War 14th Amendment explicitly recognizes that states may deprive criminals of the right to vote.
As a reminder, here is what the 14th Amendment says on the subject:
But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state. (emphasis added)
I just don't see how such clearcut language recognizing the power of states to deny criminals the right to vote can be ignored, although, apparently the Ninth Circuit has done so. And I guess I have no faith in some of our Supreme Court justices not to vote to uphold such a decision. But, if the same Court doesn't find the death penalty a violation of the Constitution on racial grounds and arguments that it is applied in a discriminatory fashion, I can't see them buying the argument that the incarceration rates are so clearly discriminatory that it would outweigh the rights of the states to write their own voting laws.

And, I don't think that this is a winning Democratic issue if the Republicans were ever to highlight Hillary Clinton's and John Kerry's efforts to enfranchise criminals. That might appeal to African Americans, but face it - they are going to vote Democratic anyway. In 2008, when a Democratic candidate is striving to win over some red state like Ohio, does he or she really want to be explaining to voters how states should be forced by the federal government to give the vote to criminals? Can't you just picture those ads? Picture the mug shots, the pictures of the victims, scary headlines about terrible crimes, and the ominous music as the narrator says: "Ask Hillary Clinton why she wants to give the vote to this murderer, that rapist, this thief, or that child molestor?"

If the Republicans were smart, they would let this bill come to a vote and get everyone on record. All the Democratic wannabes for 2008 would have to vote for it unless they want to be Liebermanized. This is a better wedge issue for the GOP than a lot of the cultural issues they have beaten to death and that are starting to lose their appeal. Let's get the country talking about felon voting rights. That's got to be a debate that the GOP would win. Even if such a bill passed, it would be a great one for Bush to veto. Then the RNC can start preparing their campaign ads.