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The Politics of Restoring Felon Voting Rights

A Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee killed [1] a series of bills [2] that would have amended the constitution to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons once they had served their time. The Senate is expected to do the same today.

GOP-controlled legislatures killing measures which, by design or as a side effect, give more Democrats the vote is nothing new. Lawmakers pointed out that felons did have a procedure to restore the franchise by petitioning the governor. The issue, for the opponents of automatic re-enfranchisement, is the integrity of elections–someone convicted of a felony is of questionable judgment therefore they should be subject to review.

ThinkProgress writes [3], “Far from just simple procedural act, applying for clemency is no guarantee that whoever is governor will grant the clemency request.”

Strictly speaking that’s true, but Governor Bob McDonnell has approved the vast majority [4] of these petitions since being elected and is a firm supporter of reintegration. He supported [5] the bills, along with Attorney General and lone 2013 GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli, and was disappointed at the outcome:

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“Once individuals have served their time, and paid their fines, restitution, and other costs, they should have the opportunity to rejoin society as fully contributing members. As a nation that embraces second chances and believes in redemption, we want more productive citizens and fewer people returning to prison. Automatic restoration of constitutional rights will help reintegrate individuals back into society and prevent future crimes, which means fewer victims and a safer Virginia.”

The easy interpretation of House’s motive for scuttling the bill is pure self-interest. As with many Voter ID laws, the GOP claims to be looking out for the integrity of elections while making voting more difficult for reliably Democratic constituencies.

Yet with the number of felons McDonnell has pardoned, it’s hard to claim that there’s a failure in the current approach to reintegrating ex-felons, and certainly not a big enough one to justify a constitutional amendment. So long as the governor’s hand doesn’t get tired.

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#1 Comment By Punditius On January 15, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

Why is it that the category of potentially fraudulent voters predominantly seems to contain Democrats? What kind of party would so obviously attract felons? Why is it that the supposed party of the poor is so clearly the party of crony capitalism? What has happened to our country to make it contain so many people who are willing to trade Liberty for Security, and subordinate themselves to government?

I’d be happy to let felons vote, if they’ve kept their nose clean for, say, five years after being released from prison. It’s not just a matter of having served their time – it’s a question of whether they’ve reformed their lives.

#2 Comment By Robb Davis On January 15, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

“As a nation that embraces second chances and believes in redemption, we want more productive citizens and fewer people returning to prison.”

I wonder what nation Mr Cuccinelli is talking about here. Certainly not the United States.

#3 Comment By cka2nd On January 16, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

“Yet with the number of felons McDonnell has pardoned, it’s hard to claim that there’s a failure in the current approach to reintegrating ex-felons, and certainly not a big enough one to justify a constitutional amendment. So long as the governor’s hand doesn’t get tired.”

So we are to put our faith in the actions of one man? When the next governor could go in completely the opposite direction? President Obama has barely exercised his clemency-granting powers at all, so I’m not so sanguine that the system is working because one term-limited governor in one state is doing the right thing.

#4 Comment By The Wet One On January 16, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

As someone who’s constitution states:

“3. Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”

I always find it odd that Americans consider themselves “free” where one’s right to vote (a fairly important right, at least as important as the right to bear arms, if not moreso) can be circumscribed by a wrongful conviction without chance of recourse.

Where I am from, citizenship = right to vote. Period. No exceptions. Not even for murderers serving time.

That last bit might be taking things too far, but at least it does so in the right direction. The way the U.S. does things and the rates at which it incarcerates people, well, one might conclude that the U.S. doesn’t really take voting rights seriously.

I’ve also learned, under the Voting I.D. law fiasco in this last election, that Americans don’t clearly have a right to vote. Astonishing! Utterly Astonishing!

I’m glad my right to vote is protected as it is in clear, unambiguous, prescriptive language and not subject to the whims of political parties, elected officials or lesser laws. I am Canadian, therefore I can vote and hold office. I understand that in some U.S. states, you can’t actually hold office if you’re not a Christian!!!

The words “Free country, my hairy goat posterior” come to mind but this is a polite, respectful venue for discussion, so I’ll leave that bit out. 😉

#5 Comment By Michael Kaiser On January 16, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

Society ALWAYS gets, in the long term, what it deserves. By pushing “felons” to the fringes of society, it comes back to bite society in uncountable ways. LOL!

#6 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On January 16, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

This is a difficult argument to make in the 21st Century. I think our founders had an eye to suppressing the worst elements of mass Democracy by giving the individual states the right to define voter eligibility.

The spirit of Republican virtue over mass Democracy is almost dead in our time. I mourn it, but in matters like this I sense that felons will join lunatics, welfare recipients and government workers as our fellow “deciders” on election day.

I wonder however if those who favor felons voting would also countenance felons gun rights?

#7 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On January 16, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

The Wet One wrote, “I understand that in some U.S. states, you can’t actually hold office if you’re not a Christian!!!”

You’ve got to get your news about what actually happens in the US from some other venue. I’d love to hear where you learned this bizarre falsehood.

BTW, we get our legal system from English Common Law just like you do.

#8 Comment By The Wet One On January 17, 2013 @ 8:37 pm

Sorry, my mistake. It’s not that you can’t hold office if you aren’t a Christian, it’s that you can’t hold office if you don’t believe in a supreme being:

[6]

“Sec. 4. RELIGIOUS TESTS. No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”

That’s just one state. The others are listed on this page:

[7]

#9 Comment By The Wet One On January 17, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

A fuller list:

“The constitutions of these seven US states ban atheists from holding public office:

Arkansas:

“No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.”[79]

Maryland:

“That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.”[80]

Mississippi:

“No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.”[81]

North Carolina:

“The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”[82]

South Carolina:

“No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.”[83]

Tennessee:

“No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”[84]

Texas:

“No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”[85]

An eighth state constitution discriminates against atheists by affording special protection to theists only.

Pennsylvania:

“No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.”[86]

De jure, this doesn’t amount to meaning that one must be Christian to hold office. On a de facto basis, I suppose it doesn’t either. However, given the history of the U.S., and its religious makeup, I feel confident in saying it was essentially de fact the case that one had to be Christian before one could hold office.

Modern examples are the two Indian governors, one of whom (Jindal I think) very publically converted to Christianity (which I’m sure didn’t hurt his electoral chance). I don’t know if Nikki Haley (?) was always a Christian, is a Christian, or is a recent convert for the some of the same reasons as Jindal, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

I don’t know if Romney’s Mormonism helped or hurt him, but historically, except in Utah, I suspect being a Mormon didn’t help. Granted, he did become governor in Massachusetts, but I know his religion came up in the election race as something worth talking about.

In any event, I made a mistake and remembered it wrong. I guess my bias was coming through. 😉