If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. This was the catch phrase of a TV character, Baretta, which was embraced by the public because it was short and simplistic, thus encompassing the full depth of the American grasp of the legal system. But even if you could do the time, you still couldn’t vote after your time was done, at least in some states.
In places like Mississippi, one of 12 states that permanently bar at least some felons from voting, the reason typically involves the notion that people have displayed very bad judgment by committing a felony, by definition a serious crime. No argument there. But having done so, the thinking goes, they have also proven themselves unfit to make one of life’s most important decisions: choosing the nation’s leaders. As Roger Clegg, president of the conservative advocacy group Center for Equal Opportunity, neatly puts it, “If you aren’t willing to follow the law, you can’t claim the right to make the law for everyone else.”
Not nearly as pithy as the Baretta slogan, but then, that’s why there’s no TV show Clegg. However, it’s similarly simplistic. Remember the good ol’ “no taxation without representation”? We still tax ex-cons. And in a republican form of government, voters don’t “make the law for everyone else.” Yeah, Clegg was just spouting nonsense, but it’s the sort of nonsense that Americans love because it validates their desires and requires no heavy thinking. Yay, ‘Murica!
From a more cynical, thus more practical, perspective, the restoration of voting rights to ex-cons could create a block of voters (assuming they actually voted) that could wreak havoc with carefully gerrymandered districts. Politicians would suddenly have to contend with their interests to remain in office, and the easily spewed “tough on crime” rhetoric might no longer assure re-election.
But Kentucky Governor, Democrat Steve Beshear, on his way out the door, decided to throw the curve ball.
In one of his final acts as Kentucky’s governor, Steve Beshear signed an executive order Tuesday that will automatically restore the right to vote to certain felons who have served out their sentences, a move hailed by some as a boost to democracy while at least one critic questioned its legality.
The order achieves much of what House Democrats have sought through legislation for years, offering many felons an almost immediate opportunity to regain their rights after release. Those who have already moved out of the justice system will still be required to submit a form, though Beshear’s order streamlines the process.
Would it be wrong to note that Democrats believe the felon voting block will favor their team? Not necessarily because Dems are any better at addressing their concerns, but because Republicans are exceptionally adept at scaring them away.
But even with this executive order, Beshear reminds us how shallow the pool of principle remains as he takes the dive.
Beshear’s order requires felons to meet three criteria: Ex-offenders must complete all the terms of their sentences, including probation and restitution. They must not be subject to any pending criminal charges or arrests. Lastly, they cannot obtain restoration if convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery or treason.
So not all felons count. Excise violent and sex crimes (there aren’t many bribery convictions and treason is almost non-existent), and that mostly leaves drug dealers and users, together with the occasional fraudster. Beshear justifies his order:
“This disenfranchisement makes no sense,” he said. “It makes no sense because it dilutes the energy of democracy, which functions only if all classes and categories of people have a voice, not just a privileged, powerful few. It makes no sense because it defeats a primary goal of our corrections system, which is to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes.”
Well, its borders on the idiotic to contend that people who haven’t been convicted of a felony are the “privileged, powerful few.” The lucky few, perhaps, but let’s not get crazy. Yet, if he’s going to invoke the “rehabilitation” argument, why then does he exclude such a wide swath of ex-offenders? Is the guy who pees against a public wall incapable of being rehabilitated?
Under the state constitution, a felony conviction results in the loss of voting rights and the right to hold public office. Kentucky is one of only four states where restoration of voting rights is not automatic. Felons also are prohibited from owning a firearm or serving on a jury.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, more than 243,000 Kentuckians are unable to cast a ballot due to a felony conviction — nearly 181,000 of which have already completed their sentences.
More than 22 percent of African-American voters are disenfranchised at the polls — one of the highest rates in the country and three times the national rate, said Sen. Gerald Neal, a Democrat from Louisville who has carried voting rights legislation in the Senate for years.
So naturally, there is opposition to the governor’s assertion of unilateral fiat.
Meanwhile, House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover said Tuesday that while he supports restoration for certain felons, he also questions whether Beshear’s action is legal. He argued that restoring rights can only be accomplished through constitutional amendments.
While the politicians spar over the mechanics, nobody seems to be challenging the rationale for perpetuating the deprivation of voting rights, not to mention other constitutional rights, based upon the broad characterization of the crime of conviction.
If disenfranchisement is unprincipled, then it’s just as unprincipled for the robber as the burglar. If we presume the corrections system to do its job and rehabilitate convicts, then why is a drug dealer sufficiently rehabilitated to vote when a 19-year-old who had consensual sex with a 16-year old is unworthy?
Some will react that it’s better to gain some traction with restoring the vote for felons in Kentucky than the alternative, but when reform emits the unpleasant stink of politics at the expense of principle, is it really reform or just another cynical effort to game the political system for the benefit of the party that thinks it’s going to gain the most benefit? At the very least, let’s be honest about stunts like this, and acknowledge that the only time anyone gives a damn about ex-cons is when they think they can score some points for their team.
H/T Mike Paar