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The Cellblock Voting Bloc

For Democrats, allowing felons to exercise the franchise isn't a matter of justice, it's a way to get votes.

March 08, 2005|Jonah Goldberg | Jonah Goldberg is editor at large at National Review Online.

In 1994, when the rest of the country was sweeping Republicans into office, Washington, D.C., went another way. I was watching television at a bar with some friends the night Marion Barry, recently released from prison for a drug conviction, was returned to City Hall. A local news reporter at Barry's raucous victory rally said -- completely without irony -- "Well, Jim, I'm here tonight at the Barry headquarters. It's a really diverse group, with people from every part of the Barry coalition ... and a strong turnout from the ex-offender community." (I'm quoting from memory).

This was the first time I'd ever heard of a candidate tapping the "ex-offender community" -- i.e. convicted criminals and their relatives -- to win an election. The convicts couldn't vote under D.C. law (though Barry encouraged prisoners on misdemeanor charges or awaiting trial to vote by absentee ballot), but he nevertheless hoped his constituency in the clink would lobby their relatives on the outside to vote for him. His platform included perks such as "gate money" and more conjugal visits, in an apparent effort to rally his cellblock base.

Now it turns out that Barry was a pioneer among Democrats. No less than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton came out last month for the restoration of voting rights to criminals, er, sorry, "ex-offenders."

The argument in favor of restoring the voting rights of felons who have paid their debt to society is fairly obvious: They've paid their debt to society. If felons have earned the right to be released and to exercise their rights to speech, movement, association etc., then why should they be denied their right to vote?

It's a fair argument as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn't go very far. First, this isn't as widespread a problem as advocates for felons' rights claim. Only six states have an outright ban on ex-offenders voting. Eight more states have a mixed system under which ex-cons have to wait some predetermined period before they can vote again, or they can petition for restoration of their voting rights. Two states -- Maine and Vermont -- even allow convicted criminals currently in prison to vote. And, until 2000, Massachusetts had a similar policy of allowing all convicts, including rapists and murderers, to vote. One has to assume Michael Dukakis got Willie Horton's vote.

The reason for the mishmash of rules is that states are currently allowed to determine their own policy on who votes and who doesn't.

It all has to do with this thing called federalism, which liberals have recently found a new appreciation for. In George W. Bush's America, on issues like gay marriage, euthanasia and the like, there's been a new call for what journalist Jim Holt, writing in the New York Times, calls a "States' Rights Left." Let those red states do their thing, we'll do ours.

But this budding romance with the founders' plan is a bit disingenuous when it comes to voting rights for convicted criminals. Why? Because -- and this is a delicate issue, so I will try to be sensitive -- criminals tend to vote for Democrats. Moreover, some places where convicted criminals are barred from the rolls are key for Democratic chances to take back the White House. Florida tops that list. Hence, Hillary and the Democrats' desire to make felon rights a federal issue. If you think this is too cynical, ask yourself why Democrats in 2000 were far more concerned with counting the votes of alleged felons than confirmed soldiers.

That Democrats do better in the ex-offender community undoubtedly has less to do with their simpatico outlook with thieves, robbers and rapists and more to do with the lamentable fact that the prison population is disproportionately made up of poor, underprivileged, nonwhite men. Not surprisingly, liberals are more than eager to turn the prison ballot into the race card. A Stanford Law Review article calls it "the new literacy test." The New York Times' Brent Staples asserts that "legal scholars attribute [felon disenfranchisement] to this country's difficulties with race." The president of the American Bar Assn. claims that the "origins of America's felony disenfranchisement laws are linked to post-Civil War efforts to disenfranchise former slaves, a sad racial legacy that manifests itself today in the fact that people of color make up more than 60% of our nation's prison population."

An inconvenient problem is that this isn't true. Even two of the chief advocates of felon re-enfranchisement -- Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project -- acknowledge in a joint publication that "disenfranchisement in the U.S. is a heritage from ancient Greek and Roman traditions carried into Europe." The basic idea is simple: Lawbreakers shouldn't be lawmakers.

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