On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the Georgetown Law Center where he urged states to repeal laws that permanently ban felons from voting. Holder believes, “it is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision”. He continued, “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive,” Holder said. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”
Holders comments, of course, cannot change any laws, but they will serve to spark the debate again. Currently, states have a wide variety of system, from Maine and Vermont, which allow even current inmates to vote, to Virginia and Kentucky, which will only give released felons the franchise on a case-by-case basis.
As many will immediately notice, it’s hard to look past the partisan gain that Holder’s party, the Democrats, would see if a huge bloc of mostly Democratic voters were suddenly legalized. The exact same dynamic is at play in immigration reform, as much as conservatives hate to admit it. Sadly, because of this, it’s really hard to see any movement on this issue at any time in the near or medium term future.
For what it’s worth, which isn’t a whole lot, I think it’s pretty obvious that former felons should gain the vote pretty much immediately after serving their debt to society. As Kevin Drum mentions, sure, I’d be willing to compromise with some sort of “waiting period”, to ensure convicts don’t receive the right to vote then end up right back in jail, but I don’t think it’s right.
Once somebody has finished their punishment, for whatever crime they’ve committed, their debt it paid, they should be presumed to be every bit the citizen that non-convicts are. In a country with a recidivism rate as high as ours, maybe it has something to do with the way we just casually disenfranchise convicts, showing them that they will never again be accepted into “upstanding” society, so they might as well continue leading a life of crime?