In restoring voting rights to felons, a question of redemption

Virginia has restored voting rights to felons, possibly giving Democrats a boost. But the decision also points to a shift in how society views former lawbreakers. 

Mark Gormus /Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Gov. Terry McAuliffe holds up the order he signed to restore rights to felons in Virginia at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, April 22, 2016. More than 200,000 convicted felons will be able to cast ballots in the swing state of Virginia in November's election under a sweeping executive order by McAuliffe announced Friday that restores their rights to vote and run for office.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Friday issued an executive order that overrides a constitutional amendment barring ex-felons from voting in the state.

The majority of the 206,000 potential new voters in Virginia are African-American, and according to The New York Times, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders might have spent millions of dollars trying to gain even the half-point edge such a voting bloc could give Democrats.

Nearly 9 out of every 10 African-Americans vote Democrat.

Mr. McAuliffe is the former Democratic National Committee head and a long-time adviser to Mrs. Clinton, for whom he just raised $2 million at his home. What’s more, Virginia could be a deciding swing state in the November presidential election. Those facts have only raised the stakes, making the enfranchisement order a “transparent” attempt to sway an election through “reckless abuse of executive power,” in the words of Ed Gillespie, a Virginia gubernatorial candidate.

Yet by invoking the Emancipation Proclamation and noting that 1 out of every 5 black Virginians had lost the right to vote, McAuliffe, political observers say, has likely staked the high ground on an evolving debate by demanding what the Richmond Times-Dispatch called a “historic shift away from a … policy of lifetime disenfranchisement ….”

McAuliffe “was quite persuasive in his case.… Once a person has paid his or her debt to society and is off parole, I mean, why not? Don’t we want them to become part of society again and the community?” columnist Mark Shields said on the PBS NewsHour Friday night.

In that sense, granting voting rights goes beyond partisan politics: It's also about how society views lawbreakers – as redeemable, or as deserving life-long punishment.  

While the franchise debate is a contentious one, a growing number of states, many of them with Republican governors, are rethinking the extent to which voting is a privilege that can be taken away from citizens who break laws. Evidence from the American  Parole and Probation Association suggests that restoring the franchise reduces recidivism. Though a future Republican governor in Virginia could undo McAuliffe’s order, past Republican governors have also taken steps to ease the impact of the 1902 amendment that barred felons from the vote.

“I think politicians are realizing that integrating people into the process is better than putting up a block wall … or some type of barrier for people to join the process,” Cory McCray, a Maryland state delegate who helped extend the franchise to 44,000 Maryland ex-felons earlier this year, told USA Today.

McAuliffe made the state the 20th to ease voting restrictions for ex-felons in the past two decades. Fourteen states allow felons to vote after their prison terms are completed even while they remain on parole or probation. Only two, Maine and Vermont, allow incarcerated Americans to absentee-vote. Three states – Florida, Kentucky and Iowa – still permanently revoke voting rights for felons.

McAuliffe cited past injustices, but also dovetailed his argument into positions taken by Republican governors, as well, both in Virginia and other Southern states.

“I want you back in society,” McAuliffe told The New York Times. “I want you feeling good about yourself. I want you voting, getting a job, paying taxes.’’

Added to bipartisan justice system reform efforts and more recent civil rights protest efforts to make sure African-Americans are fully protected, the effort by Republicans to paint the gambit as election year politics has arguably become more difficult.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, just overturned a franchise-restoration order put into place by his Democratic predecessor. And Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed a bill that would have restored voting rights for 44,000 ex-felons, but the Democratic legislature overrode the veto.

By dismissing McAuliffe’s order as a partisan election year ploy, Republicans are put into the position of arguing that having fewer people vote is good for the nation. That idea goes deep into Republican strategy, going back at least 30 years. “I don’t want everybody to vote … [because] our leverage in elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down,” influential Republican strategist Paul Weyrich explained in 1980.

Whether for partisan or patriotic reasons, Republican legislatures, primarily in the South and Midwest, have instituted a number of voter ID laws in recent years aimed at reducing polling fraud.

Though the efforts haven’t necessarily curbed turnout by blacks – in fact, some states have seen higher turnout under such rules – critics, and some courts, have painted the efforts as latter-day poll taxes whose main thrust is to discourage Democratic voters.

At the same time, there are more fundamental issues at play for Republicans. For one, there’s a lingering question of whether McAuliffe even has the authority to overstep the state’s Constitution. His gambit is broader than past efforts to help restore the vote.  

“The underlying question … is whether or not someone who has violated the most basic aspects of the social compact … should be part of the body that governs others,” writes Thomas Lifson, in the American Thinker.

But in his essay, Mr. Lifson admits that such views are “in the minority.”

Conservatives also question whether restoring the franchise to murderers and rapists is really wise. “A murder victim won't get to vote, but the man that killed them will,” Virginia Del. Robert Bell told The Washington Post. “You will have child pornographers, human traffickers, robbers, rapists, murderers eligible to sit on juries and hear criminal cases of people who commit similar crimes.”

Either way, it's a powerful debate with roots in the very meaning of citizenship. As of now, nearly 6 million Americans (about 2.5 percent of the voting age population), can’t vote because of past criminal activity.

If all eligible ex-felons vote in November, they could, conceivably, swing an election in Virginia. Yet the impact of McAuliffe's order, in the end, may be more restorative than revolutionary.

Many felons aren’t especially eager to vote. Only about 21 percent of ex-felons whose voting rights are restored ever vote, even in presidential elections, according to a New York Times analysis. 

In that way, “the right to vote is larger than casting a ballot,” Danyelle Solomon and Liz Kennedy of the Center for American Progress write in The Baltimore Sun.

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