George Will asks, “What compelling government interest is served by felon disenfranchisement?”
Here’s the answer: If you’re not willing to follow the law, then you should not have a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote — either directly (in the case of a referendum or ballot initiative) or indirectly (by choosing lawmakers and law enforcers).
He says that it “is not a legitimate government objective for elected officials” to “fine-tune the quality of the electorate.” Really? That would mean that not only criminals but also children, non-citizens, and the mentally incompetent must be allowed to vote. In fact, we do have certain minimum, objective standards of responsibility and commitment to our laws that we require people to meet before they are given a role in the solemn enterprise of self-government.
People who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens don’t meet those standards. And those crimes can include such “non-violent felonies” as, say, treason and espionage, or voter fraud and public corruption, white-collar crime and felonies merely “concerning drugs” — like trafficking in fentanyl-laced heroin and selling it to minors, for example.
Mr. Will is uncomfortable with “politicians and their appointees deciding who can vote.” So he is uncomfortable with the Constitution, which implicitly provides for just that when it leaves the choice of deciding who votes to the states (with some specific prohibited qualifications, such as race and sex). Who else would Mr. Will have make this decision — judges? Please.
Speaking of race, in a confusing paragraph, Mr. Will seems to suggest that some might think it relevant that a disproportionate number of felons are black and that African Americans vote disproportionately for Democrats; we agree with Mr. Will if he is saying that race and partisanship should both be off the table when considering felon disenfranchisement — and we note that a federal court of appeals ruled 11-1 in 2005 that Florida’s law on the issue (the subject of Will’s column) is not racially motivated.
Mr. Will thinks that the Florida re-enfranchisement process is too “protracted” and “cumbersome,” and of course there are few government processes that are perfect. But the solution is to improve the process rather than throw it out.
And maybe Mr. Will would be happy with an improved process, but it’s hard to say because he never does say what he favors. Would he let felons still in prison vote, the way Maine and Vermont do? Maybe so, since otherwise — horrors! — elected officials would be “fine-tun[ing] the quality of the electorate.”
We agree — indeed, we know nobody who doesn’t agree — that we must “facilitate[e] the re-entry into society of released prisoners who were not improved by the experience of incarceration.” But it is precisely because such a high percentage of criminals who are released are so unimproved that they find their way back into prison (nationally, more than half) that it makes sense to wait some period of time, as Florida does, to make sure that the felon really has turned over a new leaf.
After that period of time — how long would depend on the crime committed, whether there had been previous felonies, how long ago the crime or crimes were committed, and what the felon has done since being released — then the felon could have the right to vote restored. It should be rather like a naturalization ceremony, at a courthouse with friends and family present to celebrate, some official making a nice speech, American flags, and the felon raising his right hand.
Now that would be a way to incentivize the reintegration of the felon back into civil society. Automatic re-enfranchisment — if that is what Mr. Will wants — would miss that opportunity. And it would inevitably re-enfranchise thousands, maybe millions, of felons who have not changed their ways, so that people unwilling to follow the law would be making the law for everyone else.
This piece originally appeared in the National Review