Eric Holder: Barring ex-felons from voting is unfair, counterproductive

US Attorney General Eric Holder called upon states to restore voting rights to ex-felons, saying not doing so disproportionately bars black Americans from the polls, and denies equal opportunity and equal justice.

Nick Wass/AP
Eric Holder, attorney general of the United States, speaks at a reception earlier this month in Washington. At a conference Feb. 11 at Georgetown Law School, Mr. Holder called for the reinstatement of ex-felons' voting rights upon their release from prison.

Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday called upon states to repeal laws that bar ex-felons from voting after they complete their sentences, saying such laws are "unjust” and “counterproductive,” as well as disproportionately excluding black Americans from the polls.

Mr. Holder can't force states that withhold voting rights from ex-felons to amend their laws, but his remarks, made at a criminal justice conference at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, could help prompt reconsideration of such laws. 

“Whenever we tell citizens who have paid their debts and rejoined their communities that they are not entitled to take part in the democratic process, we fall short of the bedrock promise – of equal opportunity and equal justice – that has always served as the foundation of our legal system,” said Holder, in his speech.

Holder’s comments join a chorus of calls from his Justice Department, human rights activists, and – in a reversal – some Republican lawmakers that the disenfranchisement of ex-felons disproportionally bars racial minorities from voting. Most such laws date from the late 1800s, when lawmakers across the US were pushing for legislation that would keep African-Americans, newly enfranchised, from voting nonetheless, Holder said.

"At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America's past – a time of post-Civil War discrimination," he said. “And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear."

Eleven states restrict a felon’s voting rights after prison and either probation or parole, Holder said, in his speech. Those states are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming.

In total, about 5.8 million people nationwide are barred from voting because of current or past convictions for serious crimes, according to The Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group in Washington. Some 2.2 million of those people are black, or about 1 in 13 African-American adults nationwide, according to the group. In Florida, that ratio is much higher, with 1 in 5 black state residents banned from the polls, Holder said Tuesday.

It’s unclear how an effort to restore voting rights to ex-felons and bring millions of additional people to the polls might be received in the states with such laws. Studies show that felons are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than for Republicans: A 2002 report from two universities reported that the 2000 presidential election “would almost certainly have been reversed” had felons nationwide been allowed to vote, according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, tea party-backed Sens. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky and Mike Lee (R) of Utah, both of whom were at the conference, echoed Holder's call that felons be reenfranchised on the grounds that current laws unfairly affect black men. Senator Paul said he considered it a miscarriage of justice that 1 in 3 black men in his state, which has one of the harshest disenfranchisement policies, is banned from voting.

"People think conservative Republicans just want to put people in jail,'' he said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "There are Republicans on our side who will work with Democrats who will do the right thing on this.”

Some GOP-controlled state governments recently reformed their voting laws to restore ex-felons' voting rights. Holden offered particular praise in his speech to former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R), who amended his state’s policies last year to return voting rights to people with nonviolent felony convictions, although those convicted of violent felonies still lose the right to vote for life.

(Holder’s encouraging shout-out to the ex-Virginia governor was somewhat curious, since Holder last month indicted Mr. McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges.)

Laws on disenfranchisement after conviction of a serious crime vary among states. In three states – Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky – ex-felons are disenfranchised for life, unless they receive clemency from the governor. Other states, including Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming, restore voting rights to certain kinds of felons, but not to others.

Vermont and Maine are the only states that do not practice any kind of disenfranchisement of convicted criminals, letting felons vote by absentee ballot while incarcerated. Other states restore voting rights after completion of the prison sentence or after completion of probation or parole.

The US is not unique in the developed world in restricting voting rights of ex-felons: Finland bans felons from recouping their voting rights for seven years after their release.

Most developed countries, though, have either no restrictions or selective restrictions on felons voting while in prison, or allow felons to reclaim those rights upon completion of sentences.

Holder’s calls for the repeal of disenfranchisement laws come amid his broader push for reforms of the US criminal justice system, including leading a fight to restore federal oversight of state voting laws, following a US Supreme Court decision last summer striking down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He has also made pushing for ways to legally encode marriage equality for gays and lesbians a priority during his time in office. 

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