May 20, 2016 | Commentary on Legal Issues, Elections, Crime

Should Felons Be Allowed to Vote? Yes, But...


Felons should be allowed to vote — but not until they have completed their sentences (including any period of probation or supervised release), paid at least a part of any court-ordered restitution to their victims, and proven they are now willing to abide by the rules implemented by society.

To automatically restore voting rights the moment a felon walks out of prison is not in the best interests of the felon or the public as a whole. Instead, states should require a waiting period before felons can individually apply to a state review board or the governor’s office to have their rights fully restored.

This process should apply to more than just voting rights. Proponents of automatic restoration of voting rights often conveniently ignore the fact that felons lose many other civil rights as well, such as the right to sit on a jury, own a gun, obtain various professional licenses, or work as a public school teacher or law enforcement official in many states.

That waiting period can vary, depending on the seriousness of the felony and whether violence was involved.

Why have a waiting period? The recidivism rate for felons is extremely high. The U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested within three years; three-quarters were rearrested within five years.

Some in the movement for criminal-justice reform are asking whether to restore voting rights to felons.

A three- to five-year waiting period gives ex-offenders a real opportunity to “start over” and establish a track record of responsible behavior. This would show that they’ve succeeded in jumping off the criminal treadmill.

A three- to five-year track record of law-abiding behavior would demonstrate effective rehabilitation of someone who previously had no compunction about violating the rules of civil society.

Automatic reinstatement of voting rights does not allow for this. Instead, it would give 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 is needed.

Do murderers, rapists, child molesters and armed robbers really deserve automatic restoration of their rights? They owe society and their victims a debt that can never be repaid.

The claim that felon disenfranchisement provisions are racist is incorrect both factually and historically. The majority of states restricted felon voting before the Civil War when blacks were unable to vote in most states; at the time they were enacted, such laws applied predominantly, if not exclusively, to white males.

In fact, the Fourteenth Amendment, one of the three Reconstruction amendments, specifically gives states the authority to abridge the right to vote for “participation in rebellion, or other crime.” Your race doesn’t cause you to lose your right to vote; it is your decision to break the law.

Recently, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe took it upon himself to grant a blanket restoration of voting rights — and the right to sit on a jury and run for elective office — to more than 200,000 felons. His executive action likely violates the state constitution as well as the previous requirement of a waiting period and individualized review of petitioners.

Doubtless, McAuliffe knows that a large percentage of those felons will be back in prison before the 2020 elections. He apparently has no interest in learning who among the 200,000 has really “turned over a new leaf” and taken responsibility for their actions.

Ironically, while McAuliffe apparently believes felons can be trusted to act responsibly in the voting booth and the jury box, he does not trust them in the community at large. He specifically refused to restore their Second Amendment right to own or possess a handgun.

If felons deserve automatic restoration of their voting rights because they have “paid their debt” and it will help “reintegrate” them into civil society, shouldn’t all their rights be restored? Advocates such as McAuliffe apparently don’t think so. This has led some to infer that they are more interested in votes than the well-being of convicted felons.

Felons should have the ability — and an incentive — to prove they deserve to exercise their right to vote, serve on a jury and own a gun. But that can only happen if there is a waiting period after they are back in society and if there is an individualized review of their record.

Sadly, we know that all too many of them will fail to change their ways and reintegrate into civil society. Instead, they will go back to prison, where an “I voted!” sticker should not be part of the uniform.

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

Related Issues: Legal Issues, Elections, Crime

This piece was originally distributed by InsideSources