Restore felons' voting rights

Restore felons' voting rights

August 6th, 2012 in Opinion Times

One of the most galling undercurrents of contemporary U.S. politics is the partisan effort by Republican legislators in many states to suppress voter turnout by implementing extremely questionable voter ID requirements. Indeed, many states now have ID requirements that make it difficult for certain groups - usually the poor, the elderly and minority groups - to vote. It is hardly an accident that those targeted by such requirements tend to vote for Democrats.

Those who promote and pass such restrictive laws, of course, couch their actions in lofty terms. ID requirements, they say, are necessary to preserve the purity of the election process and to prevent fraud. That's political jargon of the worst kind. There's no need for such legislation. Documentable voter fraud is exceedingly rare, and typically low in volume when it does occur.

The only reason for voter ID requirements is to disenfranchise certain voters. The process is not the only way that partisan legislators play politics with the right to vote. Many states also restrict the vote by disenfranchising felons. That's another endeavor that looks good on paper, but one that on closer inspection is infused with a racism that flies in the face of the nation's basic principles.

Many individuals on both sides of the political divide find it reasonable to withhold voting rights from convicted felons currently in jail or prison. What's not reasonable, though, is extending the ban on voting from incarcerated felons to those who have served their time. If those men and women, including parolees and probationers, have been rehabilitated as their release from prison indicates, why should their right to vote remain suspended?

The answer is, again, political. Refusing to restore voting rights to felons who have served their time and who are living within the law in their communities is another way to suppress the minority vote. Indeed, given the fact that blacks make up about 38 percent of the prison population but slightly less than 13 percent of the general population, it's obvious that most of the felons who remain disenfranchised after their release are members of a minority group that tends to vote for Democrats.

GOP-controlled legislatures that refuse to consider restoring voting rights to felons who have done their time -- and who meet the requirements of their parole or probation - are acting in such a manner to reduce the number of likely Democratic voters. The numbers can be considerable. Currently, Tennessee and Georgia bar felons who are in jail or prison or on parole or probation from voting. That effectively keeps tens of thousands of rehabilitated men and women from exercising a basic right of democracy.

There is a remedy to such outrageous legislative fiats. Tennessee, Georgia and other states with similar laws should automatically restore the right to vote to now law-abiding felons who have completed their sentences. It is the just, equitable and quintessentially American thing to do. Besides, it fosters civic engagement of the best kind. That's especially important to reinforce rehabilitation.