Every violation of law is an attack on civil society. But should violators be banned from participating in a fundamental process of such society - voting?
That question is forcefully raised in a new report by a pair of nonprofit advocacy groups, Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project. According to their findings, an estimated 3.9 million Americans are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. Of that total, 1.4 million are African-American men, about 13 percent of all black men in the United States.
The practice of felony disenfranchisement varies widely among the states. Prisoners are denied the vote in 46 states. Thirty-two states extend the ban to people on parole. Ex-offenders who've served their time are permanently blocked from the polls in 10 states, with variations on that lifetime ban in another five.
All of which raises a basic question: Do Americans believe in the possibility of rehabilitation for lawbreakers? If the answer is yes, there's no justification, certainly, for denying the vote to people who've paid their debt to society and ought to be encouraged to become participating citizens. A better case might be made for disenfranchising inmates who haven't yet paid that debt. But, for them, too, the door should be left open for an eventual return to responsible citizenship.
The franchise should be a means of drawing people back into society, not a tool to banish them from it.