In much of America, a criminal record keeps a citizen from voting. But this perpetual punishment may be on its way out in some states.
And none too soon, considering the growing size of the convict and ex-convict population and the need to bring such individuals back into useful participation in society.
One reason for a harder look at the practice of banning anyone with a felony conviction from voting is Florida's experience last fall. Lists of ex-felons used to purge county voting rolls included many people misidentified as former convicts. This highlighted deep problems with accurate record-keeping.
Other states are moving away from the practice for philosophical reasons. Connecticut just enacted a law allowing anyone convicted but placed on probation to cast a ballot. New Mexico, Maryland, and Florida are among other states contemplating similar loosening of their laws.
In Connecticut, the move to let probationers cast a ballot could mean as many as 36,000 additional voters for next year's elections. Across the country, more than 4 million people are affected by laws that disenfranchise past or present convicts.
These laws vary greatly. Some states apply the voting ban only to those actually in prison. Others extend it to people on probation or parole. Thirteen states keep the ban in effect after sentences are served, either permanently or for years.
The rationale, presumably, is to be tough on criminals. If someone commits a serious crime against society, this thinking goes, his punishment should include being deprived of a fundamental right. That may make sense for those currently serving time. Incarceration, after all, suspends most of the rights of citizenship. (Two states, however, Vermont and Maine, let even prisoners vote.)
For people who've served their time, or who have been granted probation or parole, withholding the right to vote is simply counterproductive. Society's interest is to see these individuals become productive workers and family members. A voting ban only darkens the stigma of a criminal past, making a turnaround in individual lives just a little more difficult.
Perhaps some convicts or ex-convicts couldn't care less about voting. But criminologists who've interviewed prisoners have found that a surprising number are deeply concerned about their loss of the right to vote.
Restoring that right to people who have paid their debt to society, or who are in the process of paying that debt while on probation or parole, could swing some future votes toward one party or the other. But partisan interests should pale before the need to give millions an opportunity to rejoin the larger, democratic community.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor