Ex-felon voting issue for states, not the feds

CNJ staff

There is an undeniable aura of partisan gamesmanship in the call by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and other Democrats to make election day a federal holiday to encourage more people to vote, and to allow ex-felons to vote. A higher percentage of registered Republicans than Democrats tends to vote, and these proposals are clearly calculated to get more Democratic voters to the polls.

While the first idea is rather silly, however, and would undermine economic productivity, the second has some merit. The question is whether it should be handled at the national level or by the states.

The theory, at least, is that somebody who has committed a crime and served a sentence has “paid his debt to society,” and is therefore eligible to be reinstated into full citizenship. Yet several states — Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska and Virginia — permanently disenfranchise anybody convicted of any felony. Others make it so difficult to regain voting privileges that it almost amounts to permanent disenfranchisement.

This large-scale barring of people from the polls — about 4.7 million — has become a problem in the wake of get-tough legislation, especially with regard to drug offenses, in the 1980s that made some former misdemeanors into felonies. It affects African-Americans especially, since African-Americans — although they use illicit drugs at about the same rate as other ethnic groups — make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.

About 13 percent of African-American men are permanently unable to vote because of a felony conviction. The right to vote may not be quite so sacred as some acolytes of democracy, with voting the central sacrament, would have it. But depriving people of the privilege doesn’t do much to give them a sense of having a stake in the system.

Still, this is an issue that should be handled at the state level rather than through a federal law. Several states have reformed their eligibility laws recently. The way to influence the rest is through state and local grass-roots organizing.