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.