Generally, once felons have served their time and finished parole or probation, they are allowed to vote again by simply applying. But few of the estimated 1.4 million ex-convicts in the US ever make the effort.
In these days of closer-than-usual elections, those numbers can be politically significant.
And in eight states, those convicted of a first felony offense are stripped of their right to vote in perpetuity unless they go through an often lengthy, cumbersome, and sometimes costly reapplication process. Five other states have some form of similar felony disenfranchisement. In Alabama, ex-felons are required to give DNA samples when applying for voting rights.
Florida has even prevented voting rights for residents convicted of felonies in other states. Such actions could have affected some 2,800 people in that category which would have made a difference in the state's 2000 presidential ballot count.
Restoring full citizenship to ex-felons who have paid their debt to society can help them feel part of the national or local community. That's the impetus behind legislation in Congress to restore voting rights in national elections for all ex-felons.
Americans favor the idea by 80 percent according to a Harris poll taken last summer. And election law changes in four states have helped ex-felons regain the right to vote.
Virginia recently streamlined its reapplication procedure down to a one-page form. Its move may offer a sensible solution to other states weighing this issue.
Such reform for ex-felons should be as much a part of election reform as better balloting procedures. If not, it's like punishing someone twice.