Millions of Americans — more than the population of most states — are denied the right to vote because of archaic and punitive laws that disfranchise people who have committed felonies, even after they’ve served their time.
These state laws not only erode the foundation of democracy, but also undermine the principles of rehabilitation and accountability that at least nominally guide the U.S. criminal justice system. In further isolating ex-offenders from society, they run counter to the goals of prisoner re-entry, a national policy since the presidency of George W. Bush.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is calling on states to repeal laws that prohibit felons from voting — some of them for life — after their release from prison. This just and sensible suggestion would help ex-inmates return to society.
More than 95 percent of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners eventually will go home. Their voting rights ought to be automatically restored once a prison term is complete, without a lengthy waiting period or onerous re-registration process.
The federal government can’t make such changes; individual states must do it. But the federal government could sue states that don’t repeal such laws, as the Justice Department did last year when it sued North Carolina and Texas over laws that require people to show photo identification before they can vote.
Cynical political calculations about how ex-offenders would vote should not enter into this debate. Restricting voting rights based on how groups are likely to vote is insidiously undemocratic. It’s encouraging that Republicans such as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky support restoring voting rights for former inmates.
Maine and Vermont are the only states that allow prisoners to vote while they are incarcerated. Eleven states, including Nevada, Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, and Alabama, restrict voting rights for ex-prisoners, even after they are no longer on probation or parole. In those states, as many as one in five black adults have been stripped of voting rights.
In Florida, as much as 10 percent of the population is disfranchised. In Mississippi, passing a $100 bad check carries a lifetime ban from voting.
Nationwide, nearly one in 13 black adults — roughly 2.2 million citizens — are banned from voting because of these laws. More than a third of the estimated 5.8 million Americans who are not allowed to vote because of felony convictions are African-Americans. These state laws are as nefarious as the laws passed after the Civil War to keep African-Americans from voting.
Ohio’s felony voting laws are as good as those in most other states. People who are convicted of a felony and are incarcerated cannot vote. But eligible Ohioans who have been convicted of a felony but are not in prison may vote, even while they are on probation or parole.
Ohio has no restrictions on voting for someone who has committed a misdemeanor, even if incarcerated. Anyone who is charged with a crime and is in jail awaiting trial also may cast a ballot.
All states should have laws at least as expansive as Ohio’s. States should not deny a basic right of a democratic society to former offenders, even as they ask them to become good and contributing citizens.