From prison locks to ballot box

Should felons get the vote?
By Sarah Sidlow

You can do it in public, or you can do it in private. You can do it with your friends, or by yourself. You can do it early; you can do it by mail. That’s right, we’re talking about voting. And so is Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe is the democratic governor of Virginia who just made big news by announcing an executive order restoring the voting rights of an estimated 206,000 Virginia residents convicted of a felony.

Those eligible voters include felons who have completed their sentences and any ordered time on probation or parole. Up until now, Virginia has enforced one of the strictest policies in this arena, barring felons from voting for life.

Who’s not happy about it? Lots of people.

Like the Virginia GOP, which filed a lawsuit against McAuliffe saying something to the effect of “you can’t do that.” They want the court to cancel the registrations of all felons who have signed up to vote since McAuliffe’s April 22 order.

But Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring says, “yes he can do that,” citing the state constitution, which “empowers the governor to restore rights en masse.”

Also: If the state Supreme Court takes the case and sides with the Republicans, McAuliffe could just issue individual restoration orders to hundreds of thousands of felons. Interns, get ready to lick some envelopes.

Earlier this month, Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit watchdog group, also filed a lawsuit against the governor on behalf of several Virginia voters, requesting an injunction
preventing the enforcement of McAuliffe’s
executive
order. They’re making the same point: according to the Virginia Constitution, voting rights may only be restored on an individual basis, which requires an individualized review of each person in question.

Judicial Watch’s clients are fearful their votes will be canceled out by felons who are, they claim, constitutionally ineligible to vote.

And then there’s this bit of PR: McAuliffe’s order to restore voting rights may also extend to at least 132 sex offenders who have finished their sentences but are still locked up in a behavioral rehabilitation facility because they have been deemed too dangerous to release.

But the real issue for those who oppose the action is (what else?) politics.

African-Americans, a group that historically favors Democratic candidates, are disproportionately affected by Virginia’s felon voting ban and could represent a major windfall for Dems like McAuliffe if they suddenly infuse the local voting base. He’s also a longtime friend and fundraiser for presumptive Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, and since McAuliffe’s order would also allow those new voters to participate in the November general election, this is a really big deal.

But McAuliffe and his supporters say the order will effectively help Virginia move past the Jim Crow era and help offenders fully rejoin society.

Voter bans like that in Virginia were created just after the Civil War with the intent of disenfranchising recently freed slaves. It is reported that one in five African-Americans in Virginia can’t vote—likely due to a combination of felony laws and other social factors.

Over the last two decades about 20 states have acted to ease their restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are barred from voting because of felony convictions, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington
research organization.

Ohio is one of 14 states that allow convicted felons to vote after they have served their sentences—unless their felony involves something election-specific, like voter fraud.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com

 

Felons, voting, and the political football

by Tim Walker

In the United States, all convicted felons lose their right to vote. For life. 

It’s true—ask anyone. 

Your average citizen is 100 percent certain of this fact, even though–like other popular misconceptions such as “all bats are blind,” “tomatoes are a vegetable,” and “the Great Wall of China can be seen from outer space”—it simply isn’t true. Convicted felons do not automatically lose their voting rights in all states. As a matter of fact, there are no federal laws on the books regulating voting rights for felons, and the individual states seem to approach the matter from wildly divergent perspectives.

Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida currently have the country’s harshest rules when it comes to felons and their ability to vote. In those states, all former felons are prohibited from voting after they complete their sentences, unless they secure an exemption from their state’s governor. These exemptions are decided on an individual basis. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the states of Maine and Vermont allow prisoners who are currently incarcerated to vote, albeit by absentee ballot. The remaining states approach the matter with varying degrees of forgiveness and severity.

The tide is starting to turn toward forgiveness, however. Nationally, about 800,000 people have regained their voting rights in the last two decades as over two dozens states have eased restrictions on felons casting ballots, according to the Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group. And recently in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons in the state, circumventing the Republican-controlled state legislature and prompting them to file a lawsuit against him over the action. With Virginia a key swing state in the upcoming presidential election and with Democrat McAuliffe a friend and fundraiser for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, GOP politicians in the state quickly raised cries of foul play.
McAuliffe rejects the notion that his action is politically motivated and insists he was simply restoring the right to vote to a block of citizens who have every right to do so. “There’s no question that we’ve had a horrible history in voting rights as relates to African-Americans—we should remedy it,” Mr. McAuliffe says in The New York Times. “We should do it as soon as we possibly can.” 

What purpose is served by denying the right to vote to felons who have completed their sentences? The majority of the laws that disenfranchise criminals date back to the Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War, and are rooted in racial bias. They were passed to prevent former slaves from voting. And even today, in our more enlightened society, of the 5.8 million Americans banned from voting, 2.2 million are African-American. In three states—Virginia, Florida, and Kentucky—more than a fifth of black residents outside of prison are currently barred from casting a ballot. (For comparison, about 13 percent of the U.S. population is African-American.) Nearly 6 million voting-age Americans will not be allowed to vote in the 2016 presidential election because of their home state’s individual felon disenfranchisement laws.

In February 2014, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on states with the strictest laws to restore voting rights to felons after their release from prison. “It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision,” Holder says during an address at Georgetown University. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

Studies have shown that former felons who have completed their sentences are less likely to return to prison if they are allowed to be politically active and are able to re-engage with their communities and the political process. The idea that these individuals are somehow “tainted” and should not be allowed near a voting booth is an idea rooted in ignorance and outdated, bigoted notions. As a society, we should strive to be better than that.

For centuries, American citizens have fought and died to secure and then protect the rights that this country holds dear—among them, and right up there with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is the right to vote. The idea that this fundamental right should be taken away from an individual who has committed a crime is, quite simply, wrong. And it is high time the individual states realize that and—regardless of whether it’s blue or it’s red—begin working to correct the mistakes of the past.

Tim Walker is 50 and a writer, DJ and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz and black t-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

All or nothing

 by Mike Snead

Fundamental to the American republic is the belief that “We the People” are able to define and implement a just society—a society where lawful and unlawful acts are defined by legislators elected directly by the voters. Exactly who has been enfranchised to vote has changed considerably since the current U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. Voting was, initially, a privilege granted by conditions stipulated in state law and, then, a right through amendments to the U.S. Constitution implemented through federal law and interpreted by U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The election of the legislators is now based on the concept of “one adult person, one vote,” where an adult has been defined by the 26th Amendment as being at least 18 years of age by the date of the general election. In these elections, a simple majority of votes cast—or in some cases, a plurality of votes cast—determines the outcome of the election. In theory, and in some actual cases, elections can be won by a single vote emphasizing the importance of the integrity of the voters. The outcome of the U.S. presidential election in 2000 was based on the final adjudicated tally in Florida where only 537 votes determined the outcome and all that has transpired since. Thus, for the election to be considered valid and the results peacefully accepted, the integrity of those voting must be preserved.

A felon is someone who has been convicted of a serious transgression of the law—a felony. While there are instances when the act was not intentional, in most cases, the illegal act demonstrates the felon’s, at least one-time, willing choice to undertake actions and behavior that society condemns to the extent that, on conviction, imprisonment is often imposed. Conviction expresses society’s loss of trust in the felon and brings a loss of some constitutional rights, such as freedom and, typically, the loss of the right to vote.

Ohio is one state that reinstates voting enfranchisement to felons once their period of imprisonment and/or parole ends. (One exception in Ohio is when a violation of a voting law is involved.) The key question is that with the right for an adult to vote established by the U.S. Constitution, should felons be lawfully banned from voting after they complete imprisonment and/or parole? To explore this question, it is necessary to expand this to the broader question. After completing imprisonment and/or parole, should ANY adult felon’s constitutional rights be restricted in any manner after completing their sentence?

For example, should a felon convicted of armed robbery be permitted to own or use firearms? Should a felon convicted of vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence be permitted to drive a car? Should a felon convicted of child molestation be permitted to work at a childcare facility or be a teacher or school bus driver? It is often a fact that felon’s constitutional rights are infringed lawfully after they complete their imprisonment and/or parole for the simple reason that society does not grant them the same level of trust that a non-felon member of society is automatically granted. Society holds the view that their willful past illegal felonious behavior holds the possibility of future willful illegal behavior.

Common sense—backed up by the high recidivism rate of felons—argues that imbuing felons with full trust is without merit. Yes, some percentage of felons returns to society and live a “straight arrow” life and, for this, we are thankful. However, such people are often held up as examples that reintegration into society “works” and as justification that ALL felons’ voting rights should be automatically returned as a bet on a successful reintegration outcome. Yet, if restoring one constitutional right is justified, why not all? This is the sticky question that negates the voting right argument.

Fundamental to voting enfranchisement is the belief that voters are of good moral character and cast their votes to achieve what they faithfully believe to be a good outcome for the society in which they live. With this presumption, an election outcome determined by a single vote has the same moral weight as one won by millions of votes. Imagine an elected official winning a highly contested election by a single vote. Do we not wish to be confident that all voters were of good moral character and accept that they cast their vote in the belief they were trying to achieve a good societal outcome? Would we accept the outcome knowing that a bank robber or child molester may have cast the deciding vote when society doesn’t trust the former to own firearms or the latter to be near children? For political correctness, should we risk threatening our belief in the American bedrock principle of majority rule by tainting the voter pool with those whose judgment led them to willfully commit a felony? Reason argues “no”— unless all rights are to be restored to all, indicating that full trust has been restored based simply on a calendar date having been reached.

Mike Snead is the former president of the Dayton Tea Party. Reach Mike Snead at MikeSnead@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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