Mitch was right: Why ex-cons deserve the vote

In January, 2001, Delegate Mitchell Van Yahres announced that he was sponsoring a bill to amend Virginia's Constitution to allow non-violent felons to regain the right to vote. Currently, ex-felons must petition to governor to regain that right. Support from other area legislators at the time, Delegate Paul Harris and the late Senator Emily Couric, helped the bill cruise through the House 98-0, but it quickly died in the Senate Rules Committee.–editor]

Have you ever committed a felony?

If you've ever written a lewd comment on a postcard, you have committed a felony (which is generally defined as a crime punishable by more than 365 days in prison). Or if you refused to register for the draft after turning 18, or said " fuck" on the radio, or knowingly mis-valued the items in your suitcase, or smuggled an abortion pill from France, or taken a baseball bat to a mailbox.

Then there's the drugs. Use a crack pipe, commit a felony. Snort a line of coke? Felony in 37 states, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Possession of meth is felonious in 36 states; a single hit of ecstasy in 26.

Guilty yet? If somehow not, then look up your state criminal code and check twice. For what I'm guessing is the vast majority of us who have committed a felony at least once, here's a question: Should we be banned from voting in elections, forever?

The criminal codes of Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, Mississippi, and Virginia say "yes," unless the governor grants you a pardon. So, someone like Trey Gregory a Virginia man who was convicted of Consensual Sodomy in 1997 after admitting he'd had oral sex with his ex-girlfriend is banned from the ballot box for life, in addition to being blocked from buying a gun.

The same post-prison fate awaits violent offenders in Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming plus parolees in 32 states (not to mention sitting prisoners in 48). The combined laws have created the democratic world's largest pool of adult citizens living under a system of taxation without representation.

"In the 2000 presidential election, more than 4.6 million Americans were barred from voting because of felon disenfranchisement laws across the country," professor/advocates Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, authors of several studies and articles on the issue, wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week. "Of those, 35 percent had already served their time."

Ex-con suffrage has bubbled back in the news lately, ever since Alabama Governor Bob Riley vetoed a felon-voter bill a month ago, touching off protests and Jesse Jackson appearances. On July 14, all six Democratic presidential candidates who showed up at an NAACP convention backed felon re-enfranchisement.

Democrats have a terrific incentive to make this a campaign issue: If ex-felons could vote, Democrats would win more elections. Research conducted by Uggen and Manza suggests that enfranchised felons would have tipped the scales to Al Gore, and to several Democratic Senators in the 1980s and '90s. Famously, more than 600,000 ex-cons couldn't vote in Florida (though a small number managed to find a way), which means that the Felon Factor positively dwarfed Ralph Nader, hanging chads, and butterfly ballots in terms of impact on that nightmarish statistical dead heat.

Because felons skew black (an estimated 13 percent of the black population nationwide, and an incredible 30-plus percent in Florida, can't vote), and because blacks lean 90 percent Democratic, we can assume that most new voters wouldn't celebrate their re-enfranchisement by plumping for George Bush.

Conservatives, unsurprisingly, smell a rat.

"Had Al Gore won the 2000 election, there most likely would have been considerably less outrage in the Civil Rights movement concerning 'disenfranchisement,'" Ryan O'Donnell wrote in FrontPage Magazine in June. His colleague Lowell Ponte, in an informative column the other day, scoffed: "Is the NAACP changing its name to the National Association for the Advancement of Criminals and Parolees?"

David Lampo, writing in The National Review last year, tore civil rights leaders a new one. "Instead of confronting the fact that a grossly disproportionate amount of crime is committed by black men, however, certain black leaders have turned it around and used it as yet another example of supposed institutionalized white racism, with some actually comparing the loss of voting rights for felons to poll taxes and Jim Crow voting restrictions in the old South," Lampo wrote. The comparison, he said, was nothing less than "a moral obscenity."

But to deny a racial component in felon voting restrictions is to deny history. As this Uggen/Manza chart shows, blanket felon disenfranchisement was basically invented in the first five years after the Civil War, in the South. Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, who is suing the state of New York over its voter laws, claimed in a San Francisco Chronicle column last month that in 1896:

"Mississippi lawmakers ruled that only a narrow range of offenses– bribery, burglary, theft, arson, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, bigamy, and 'obtaining money or goods under false pretenses'– made you lose the vote. Why not murder or rape? Because ex-slaves were far more likely to commit petty property crimes than serious offenses. [...] One delegate to the Virginia convention of 1906, which established rules similar to Mississippi's, went on record at the time as saying: 'This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years.'"

You will be forgiven if a Moebius strip of racial accusations (not to mention the phrases "Jesse Jackson," "Florida," and "2000 election") sends you screaming toward the exits. The real issue here is important, and boils down to two points: When, if ever, should the state be able to take away your right to vote, and what remedy is appropriate if you don't believe four million Americans should be barred from that most fundamental tool of public participation?

For me, the former question, at least, is clear. As long as there are stupid laws, disproportionate sentences, corrupt law enforcement officials, and politicians who will sacrifice rights on the altar of being tough on crime, I do not want any government preventing free citizens from voting– regardless of which distasteful political party might benefit. Lenny Bruce was a felon. "Ganja Guru" Ed Rosenthal, who grew pot for cancer patients, is a felon on probation. I'm an unconvicted felon (and a good, law-abiding citizen); I'm guessing you are, too.

As Glenn Reynolds put it succinctly recently: "Don't have so many felonies." While waiting for that long shot to come in, it will be worth tracking hopeful new developments at the statehouse level. And staying out of trouble. #

Matt Welch, the Los Angeles correspondent for The National Post, lived in Central Europe from 1990 to 1997, co-founding Prognosis, Czechoslovakia's first post-Communist English-language newspaper, in 1991.