March 15, 2013 | Commentary on Elections
The proposal to automatically restore felons' right to vote as soon as they have completed their sentences is shortsighted and bad public policy. When presented as a measure of compassion and justice, it is also hypocritical, as automatic restoration is not in the best interests of felons or the general public.
Under Florida's current system, nonviolent offenders face a five-year waiting period — and violent felons must wait seven years — before their rights can be fully restored. The waiting period gives the Governor's Office of Executive Clemency the opportunity to review each felon's behavior since release to determine whether he has realized the seriousness of his past misbehavior and changed his ways.
It takes time to establish a track record. Yet it is the only method to find out if the felon is now participating in the social compact that governs our country and complying with the rules of a civil society.
An April 2012 report from the Florida Department of Corrections showed that the recidivism rate of felons ranged from 31 percent to 34 percent on average over a five-year period. Recidivism among those convicted of robbery, burglary and sex offenses reached or exceeded 50 percent, while the overall recidivism rate for felons committing nonviolent offenses also approached 50 percent.
Given that such a large number of felons are rearrested and reincarcerated within a short time after their release, Florida's waiting period is a perfectly reasonable requirement.
Advocates of automatic restoration also seem reluctant to mention that voting rights aren't the only rights people lose when convicted of a felony. In Florida, as in most states, they also lose their right to own a gun, hold public office, sit on a jury, and obtain certain types of professional and occupational licenses. Many such rights can never be restored without a full pardon.
Why are advocates of felon voting rights silent on this count? If they believe felons deserve automatic restoration of the right to vote because they have paid their debt to society, shouldn't all rights be restored?
If they believe restoring voting rights will help "reintegrate" felons into civil society, why don't they push for automatic restoration of all other rights, including the fundamental rights to serve on a jury, work as a police officer, or own and carry a gun?
How can they be certain that a convicted drug dealer will exercise his right to vote in a responsible and trustworthy manner, yet not trust him to exercise his Second Amendment right responsibly? If a convicted burglar will vote as conscientiously as law-abiding citizens in close, local elections, why not trust her to make the right choices sitting on a jury or working as a police officer?
These omissions are a glaring inconsistency. Are advocates only interested in restoring the right to vote because they believe that will benefit them politically or ideologically in election contests?
Several years ago, liberal groups unsuccessfully sued Florida, claiming that the state's rules were unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act. In Johnson v. Bush, a federal appeals court dismissed those claims, noting that "criminal disenfranchisement provisions have existed as a punitive device" throughout history.
People truly concerned with the well-being of felons and their successful reintegration into the civil society would want the type of system Florida has. Felons have, by definition, knowingly and intentionally violated the laws of society. A five- or seven-year waiting period gives felons the opportunity — and an incentive — to prove they are deserving of exercising their right to vote.
Such an incentive can only encourage their rehabilitation — it should not be a "freebie," restored automatically as though it has no value at all.
-Hans A. von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He is the coauthor of "Who's Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk."
First appeared in The Orlando Sentinel.