Why shouldn’t everybody with a felony conviction be allowed to vote?
The editors of the New York Times are critical of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s recent veto of a law that would have allowed anyone with a felony conviction to vote if they are living in the free community. See “A Bad Voting Ban,” June 1, 2015. Maryland’s law now disenfranchises anyone convicted of a “felony and . . . actually serving a court-ordered sentence of imprisonment, including any term of parole or probation, for the conviction.” The Times editorial points out that Maryland changed its law to restore voting rights automatically upon completion of sentence in 2007, and that disenfranchisement based upon conviction is generally a punitive relic of slavery.
So if felony disenfranchisement laws are punitive relics, why should they be applied to anyone, even people who are still in prison? The logic of the Times editors’ position would seem to support voting by prisoners, as happens in Vermont and Maine and in many parts of Europe. An argument against voting by prisoners based on disenfranchisement as an integral part of court-imposed punishment would apply equally to probationers and parolees. The notion that prisoners no longer have a connection to their communities is a self-fulfilling prophecy that runs against current policies of encouraging prisoner reentry. If there are practical reasons to bar prisoners from jury service and political office, they do not apply to voting when absentee ballots have become commonplace.
But we digress. Getting back to the Times editors’ criticism of Governor Hogan, in fairness they could have pointed out that only 13 states (not including New York) and the District of Columbia now restore the right to vote to people as soon as they leave prison, though four more states (including New York) do not disenfranchise those who never go to prison to begin with. Only two states (Vermont and Maine) allow prisoners to vote. That means that the felony disenfranchisement laws in 31 states are no better than Maryland’s. Some are a lot worse. See this chart.
And, so far none of the presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, have taken a position any more favorable to extending the franchise than Governor Hogan.
Still, the Times is right to pick on Governor Hogan, because he was offered an opportunity to do the right thing by a legislature that has only recently begun to recognize the importance of restoration of rights and status after conviction. Signing the law would have made Maryland the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to allow all convicted persons living in the community to vote. And, the trend is clearly in that direction. See the Democracy Restoration Act, linked here.
Supporters of the Maryland bill promise to bring it back to the Governor’s desk next year. Hopefully by that time Governor Hogan will have had a change of heart. And, if restoration of rights should become an issue in the presidential campaign, hopefully the candidates will also see that this is an idea whose time has come, and will stand up to those who still argue that disenfranchisement is legitimate punishment.
Maybe one or two will even ask why we still bar prisoners from voting.
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