Guest column: Restore voting rights to ex-felons

The Miami Herald

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald on Sunday, Feb. 16:

Attorney General Eric Holder, who has become the Obama administration’s leading voice on minorities’ civil rights and criminal-justice reforms, recently championed a group that seldom gets the sympathy of law enforcers — convicted felons. During a criminal-justice symposium at Georgetown University last week, Mr. Holder called on 11 states, Florida included, to change their rules or to lift outright bans that prohibit felons who have served their time from voting.

Calling these rules a remnant of the Jim Crow era, when Southern states used all sorts of means to prevent black Americans from voting, Mr. Holder said, “Those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives.”

While the rules regarding if and when ex-inmates in Florida can vote have fluctuated over the years, the rule today is that felons must wait five years after they’re released from prison to apply for restoration of their voting rights. The Florida Cabinet adopted this rule in 2011. The arbitrary time of five years makes no sense. In truth, most felons, with the possible exception of violent offenders and those who commit sex-related crimes, should have their voting rights restored automatically when they have done their time.

Mr. Holder has no power to change the states’ policies, but he was right in calling attention to the issue. According to him, an estimated 5.8 million American felons — 2.2 million of them African American — are disenfranchised by states denying them voting rights. Like other criminal-justice issues Mr. Holder has tackled lately, there is a racial component here. More black Americans are incarcerated than any other group and generally receive tougher sentences for drug-related crimes.

Mr. Holder is pushing for measures to reduce the U.S. prison population, like his call on Congress to get rid of overly harsh mandatory drug sentences and calling for changes in strict school disciplinary policies that, he says, push kids into street crime rather than help them straighten up.

Restoring felons’ voting rights is not an easy sell in many states. Studies have found that felons are more likely to vote for Democrats than for Republicans, so lifting the voting bans and limits in states is a partisan issue that likely won’t change soon in GOP-led states like Florida. Interestingly, a 2002 study by the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University concluded that the 2000 presidential election would “almost certainly” have come out differently had more felons in the country been allowed to vote.

Still, the Democratic attorney general has an unusual ally in this cause: Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has endorsed his state’s legislative move to allow some felons — excluding violent offenders and those convicted of sex crimes — to be able to vote once their sentences are completed.

Sen. Paul, a libertarian, also supports Mr. Holder’s call for ending mandatory sentencing for low-level drug crimes. Praising Sen. Paul, who also appeared at the Georgetown symposium, Mr. Holder said, that his support for restoring voting rights for ex-inmates “shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines.”

He’s right. States shouldn’t continue to punish American men and women after they have paid their debt to society and are trying to move on with their lives.