October 18, 2016

October 18, 2016 | Commentary on Elections

Felons Shouldn't Get Automatic Voting Rights

Calling for wholesale restoration of voting rights for felons the moment they are out of prison, your Aug. 31 editorial cites retired professor Darryl Paulson's claim: "If conservatives want to end recidivism and reintegrate felons into society, the restoration of voting rights is essential." To bolster his conservative "cred," the editorial bills him as "a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation."

For the record, Dr. Paulson's brief tenure at Heritage ended more than 20 years ago, and his position on this issue is counter to Heritage's. Indeed, Dr. Paulson and the Sun Sentinel have it backward. If felons wish to have their voting rights restored, they must eschew recidivism and reintegrate into society first.

Felons should be allowed to vote, but not until they have proven they are now willing to abide by society's rules.

Recidivism among felons is extremely high. The U.S. Justice Department reports that over two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years; three-quarters are rearrested within five years.

Florida's policy of requiring a five-year waiting period before felons can individually apply for full restoration of their rights makes sense. Remember, felons forfeit civil rights beyond voting — rights such as sitting on juries or owning guns. The waiting period gives ex-offenders a real opportunity — and an incentive — to "start over," establish a track record of responsible behavior and demonstrate that they've succeeded in jumping off the criminal treadmill.

Automatic reinstatement of voting rights does not allow for this. Instead, it gives individuals who have intentionally broken the law the right to help decide, through the ballot box, what those laws should be and how they should be enforced. No showing of rehabilitation needed.

Additionally, the editorial's suggestion that felon disenfranchisement was "concocted to disenfranchise" blacks after the Civil War is historically wrong. Felon disenfranchisement goes back to ancient Greece. In America, the majority of states denied criminals voting rights well before the Civil War.

As a federal court noted in Johnson v. Bush, the unsuccessful challenge to Florida's law, "it is not racial discrimination that deprives felons, black or white, of their right to vote but their own decision to commit an act for which they assume the risks of detection and punishment."

About the Author

Hans A. von Spakovsky Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

This piece first appeared in the Sun Sentinel.