When Felons Vote

Terry McAuliffe did something rare in politics. He did something. He did something that was sure to be unpopular in certain circles. And yet, he did something.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia used his executive power on Friday to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons, circumventing the Republican-run legislature. The action effectively overturns a Civil War-era provision in the state’s Constitution aimed, he said, at disenfranchising African-Americans.

Whether McAuliffe’s originalism is accurate or facile historical revisionism, so trendy these days, isn’t particulary important. All but two states restrict voting by felons, so it’s not about Virginia’s particular brand of racism.  Then again, tying a move to racist motives makes it more palatable to supporters and more difficult to oppose, which explains why McAuliffe is a governor (even if it didn’t help Bob McDonnell enough).

Naturally, the New York Times applauded this bold move, showing its love for McAuliffe’s confession:

Felon disenfranchisement laws, which currently block nearly six million Americans from voting, were enacted during the Reconstruction era in a racist effort to make it harder for newly freed African-Americans to vote — a reality Mr. McAuliffe acknowledged on Friday. “There’s no question that we’ve had a horrible history in voting rights as relates to African-Americans — we should remedy it,” he said. In Virginia, one in five blacks have until now been unable to vote because of a felony conviction.

So what if North Dakota didn’t have any newly freed slaves, and wasn’t admitted to the union until 1889, but still disenfranchises felons until after their sentence is served. But I digress.  There is no doubt that felon disenfranchisement has a disparate impact on minorities, because the legal system does. Same with the poor. Same with the young.

Whether the concept of disenfranchisement was intended to be racist back in Reconstruction is only significant if one needs to find a trendy way to justify it, as if it otherwise was a grand idea.  So is there any reason why, today, criminals should be denied their right to vote?

The question was raised at the New York Times Room for Debate, where Roger Clegg, of the dubiously named Center for Equal Opportunity, and a deputy attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, took up arms against felons:

We have certain minimum standards of responsibility and commitment to our laws before entrusting someone with a role in the solemn enterprise of self-government. People who commit serious crimes against their fellow citizens do not qualify.

More succinctly, if you won’t follow the law yourself, then you can’t make the law for everyone else, which is what you do – directly or indirectly – when you vote.

The solemn enterprise of self-government sounds pretty darn . . . solemn.  So too does the old, “no taxation without representation” thing, but then, that wouldn’t have helped Clegg’s position, so it’s no surprise he didn’t seize upon it.  Here, McAuliffe hit it out of the park:

To people who have served their time and finished parole, Mr. McAuliffe said in a statement: “I want you back in society. I want you feeling good about yourself. I want you voting, getting a job, paying taxes.”

No doubt McAuliffe is pondering how to do away with Virginia’s sex offender registry too, but again I digress. One step at a time.

The former civil rights deputy attorney general goes on to explain why the end of a sentence isn’t the end of a felon’s evilness:

It’s claimed that, once released, felons should be re-enfranchised because they have “paid their debt to society.” But this phrase is misleading, since in many respects we don’t ignore a criminal past – for example, in allowing someone to buy a gun.

Of course, the solution is to allow felons who have paid their debt to society to buy a gun, but Clegg’s no fool, and knows that the New York Times would never respond with obvious logic when it involves guns.

Yet, there is a huge, gaping hole that is left unspoken in the debate, and so someone ought to mention it. Dennis Hastert.  A couple heartbeats from the presidency, and now doing 15 months for currency violations because he’s a serial pedophile. Welcome to federal sentencing, kids.

But the point is that we’re a nation of law-breakers, if one wants to be brutally honest about it. Some get caught. Most don’t. Some break laws in positions of great power. Some break them beforehand as well. And, if one is to be snarky about it, most of us commit three felonies a day. We just don’t get caught and don’t make it onto the government’s radar. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t do it.

And it also doesn’t mean we’re all evil felons, given that there’s a law that criminalizes pretty much everything short of breathing. Is the metric that some get caught while most of us get away with our felonies? Apparently so.

The conventional “wisdom” is that felons would vote their self interest, which would tend to support the Democrats, although this campaign season may raise some serious doubts about that. But we all vote our self interest, and why is ours more worthwhile than theirs? Do we fear a candidate running on a platform of, “commit crimes, it’s all cool,” winning an election? Hardly. But then, the candidate with the most police union endorsements may find herself in an awkward position if ex-felons vote.

While the issue of felon disenfranchisement is promoted, from both sides, as a race issue, that distracts from a more fundamental criminal law issue: does a felony sentence ever end? The notion that a person who is convicted of a crime and completes his sentence, and gets to rejoin society having paid his debt to society, goes beyond race, poverty and age. It goes to the legitimacy of having a criminal justice system in the first place.

We’ve gone so far afield of the concepts that legitimize conviction and sentence that it’s downright normal to make a person “pay” forever.  Just wrap it all up in the self-righteousness of good and evil, as if Dennis Hastert wasn’t a criminal as he presided as Speaker over the United States House of Representatives, almost a president, until he was.

And the irony is that we’re no less felons than they are. We just didn’t get caught. Yet, we still get to vote. So should everyone else.

19 thoughts on “When Felons Vote

  1. PDB

    I understand your point of view, Scott, since it comes from a consistent philosophy with respect to civil rights and criminal justice, but color me cynical when I read the words of the others. I’m pretty sure that Terry McAuliffe (a through-and-through Democratic party hack if there ever was one) and the NY Times would be stridently opposed to letting more people with felony convictions vote if those voters were predominantly white and likely to vote Republican. And if that were the case, Roger Craig wouldn’t be able to get on board with the plan fast enough.

    1. SHG Post author

      Any issue with political implications is fairly viewed through a jaundiced eye. That’s why I was a tad snarky about McAuliffe and the Times hopping aboard the racist train. But just because they want to spin it to their advantage, or to promote their agenda, doesn’t make it a bad idea for principled reasons as well.

      I have this problem with going with the bullshit flow even when it’s flowing in my direction. It’s still bullshit. And if there is a good (if not trendy) reason to take a side, that should be the reason. Bullshit is still bullshit, even when it supports an outcome with which you agree.

  2. REvers

    Are you absolutely certain that breathing isn’t illegal? There’s bound to be a federal statute that breathing can be shoehorned into.

  3. albeed

    “given that there’s a law that criminalizes pretty much everything short of breathing.”

    You are probably violating a CFR rule somewhere in the Federal Register by emitting carbon dioxide (a known pollutant – as determined by a Federal Court, of course) and therefore willingly and knowingly contributing to the end of society by “climate change” (cough). Forget that if we remove all carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we all die. That is irrelevant.

    Felons who have served their sentences should be given their voting right (privileges?) back because they are fellow human beings and American Citizens!

  4. Pete

    The vote should be denied to those who would claim diminished capacity if accused of a crime. This rules out drink/drugs, PTSD, battered spouses, low IQ, mental illness, abusive childhood, etc.

    The franchise is for those who are responsible for their actions.

    1. Lucas Beauchamp

      Before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, some opponents of women’s suffrage raised the specter of prostitutes voting. A writer in Harper’s Weekly responded by urging that compliance with the Seventh Commandment be required of all voters.

  5. Dragoness Eclectic

    Now if felons could just get jobs after they’ve served their time and are trying to rejoin society…

  6. JAV

    I think that one of the few things that might send a chill up the spine of our overpowered government is the enfranchisement of a multitude who has felt its sharp edge the most. That’s the kind of experience that really could change things for the better if it was given a voice and a vote.

    1. Keith Lynch

      At last a post that’s all about me! (Unless there’s another person here who also had their right to vote restored by McAuliffe last week.) I was wrongfully convicted of burglary 39 years ago. My record is otherwise perfectly clean, before and since.

      If a local criminal gang allowed you to vote in their elections, would you? Because that’s how I feel about the government. I doubt I will bother to vote, as all of the candidates appear to be scum. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people who got their rights restored don’t bother to vote.

      He also restored my right to serve on a jury. There, I think I could make a real difference. Except that of course any prosecutor would exclude me.

  7. Keith Lynch

    To be fair, Virginia’s governor does not have the power to restore gun rights. However, anyone who has had their voting rights restored (as I now have) can petition the county circuit court for their gun rights back. I’m considering doing so, even though I don’t want a gun, mainly so that I don’t have to live in fear of getting caught on a technicality, e.g. when helping a friend who owns a gun move house.

  8. Jim Simpson

    The US Supreme Court ruled in 1986 (Hunter v. Underwood) that an Alabama law blocking certain classes of misdemeanor convicts from voting was originally passed with racist intent and was having a racially disparate impact still. They threw that law off the books after doing a pretty serious analysis of both the history and intent of the legislation.

    If the VA law was similar, the Hunter ruling backs the governor’s position.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m now stupider for having read your comment. If you care at all about humanity, never write anything ever again.

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