Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
Democrats in Congress are pushing for a new law that would allow nearly 4 million people currently banned from voting to cast their ballot, and most of those millions, studies show, will vote Democrat.
And where will these new voters come from?
From the ranks of convicted felons.
Last week, a House subcommittee heard testimony on H.R. 3335, the “Democracy Restoration Act.” The bill seeks to override state laws, which vary in how they restrict when convicted felons released from prison can vote.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., states, “The right of an individual who is a citizen of the United States to vote in any election for federal office shall not be denied or abridged because that individual has been convicted of a criminal offense unless such individual is serving a felony sentence in a correctional institution or facility at the time of the election.”
Advocates of the bill trumpet it as a civil rights issue and a matter of freedom, while pointing out that a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic Americans have been disenfranchised by laws restricting felons from voting.
Critics call it another example of the federal government overstepping its constitutional powers to squash state sovereignty and point out that the laws don’t discriminate against minorities, for the statistics simply reflect the disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic Americans convicted of crime.
Critics have also hinted that the law is politically convenient for Democrats.
Hans von Spakovsky, a former Commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, explained in a blog statement, “What is particularly revealing about this bill is that it does not say anything about the other civil rights that a felon loses, such as the right to own a gun or serve on a jury or in some states, to work as a public employee.
“That is an interesting comment given that the ‘findings’ in the bill claim that such state felon laws ‘serve no compelling State interest,’” he concluded. “I guess this legislation would serve one compelling interest for the sponsors – it might get them votes they need to win in close elections.”
Multiple studies have backed up van Spokovsky’s claim, showing that convicted and former felons consistently lean Democrat.
During the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, for example, an article in the National Law Journal stated, “Al Gore sure could use an extra million-plus votes on Nov. 7. And those potential voters are out there. But inconveniently, they’re all in Sing-Sing, San Quentin and hundreds of other prisons, and in the big pool of prison alumni. And for now, they can’t vote. … But a movement
is afoot to change that. And if that happens, a new study co-authored by criminologist
Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota indicates, the felon vote could give
many close elections to the Democrats.”
Uggen’s study concluded that Bill Clinton pulled 86 percent of the felon vote in 1992 and a whopping 93 percent in ’96, and in most elections going back decades Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate would have received at least seven of every ten votes cast by felons and ex-felons.
A Public Opinion Strategies survey in Washington State in May 2005 similarly found that even after accounting for other differences that predict how people vote – including race, religion, age and other demographics – felons were 36 percent more likely than non-felons with the same characteristics to have voted for John Kerry over George W. Bush and 37 percent more likely to be registered Democratic.
Still, proponents of the bill insist that regardless of politics, laws barring ex-felons from voting are a civil rights issue.
“State disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities,” the bill itself states. “Eight percent of the African-American population, or 2,000,000 African-Americans, are disenfranchised. Given current rates of incarceration, approximately one in three of the next generation of African-American men will be disenfranchised at some point during their lifetime. Hispanic citizens are also disproportionately disenfranchised based upon their disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system.”
Deborah J. Vagins, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel adds, “Felony disfranchisement laws are rooted in the Jim Crow era and were intended to bar minorities from voting. To this day, they continue to have a disproportionate impact on minority communities. Moreover, revoking the right to vote for millions of citizens is not only undemocratic, it is counterproductive to the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of those released from prison.”
Van Spakovsky, who testified before the subcommittee, disagrees.
“Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment specifically provides that states may abridge the right to vote of citizens ‘for participation in rebellion, or other crime.’ The Fourteenth Amendment simply recognized a process that goes back to ancient Greece and Rome,” van Spakovsky told the congressmen. “The claim that state laws that take away the right of felons to vote are all rooted in racial discrimination is simply historically inaccurate – even prior to the Civil War, when many black Americans were slaves and could not vote, a majority of states took away the rights of voters who were convicted of crimes.
“It is true that some Southern states tried to use these laws during Reconstruction and afterward to disenfranchise blacks,” he continued, “but those laws have all been changed and amended. The case cannot be made today that such laws are in any way applied in a discriminatory fashion.”
Van Spakovsky concluded, “No … showing of intentional discrimination can be made with regard to such state laws today, and they cannot be held unconstitutional even if they have a ‘racially disproportionate impact.’ Criminals lose their right to vote because of their own conscious actions in violating the law, not because of their race.”
Currently, state laws vary on when and how convict can regain the vote. In two states, even prisoners can vote, while in others, a felon must first finish parole, pay off existing fines or complete other steps of reconciliation with society.
But why disenfranchise felons in the first place?
For von Spakovsky, the answer is both constitutional and practical.
“H.R. 3335 represents an unconstitutional intrusion into the rights of the states,” he testified. “Congress simply does not have the constitutional authority to force states to restore the voting rights of convicted felons.
Furthermore, he argued, “H.R. 3335 would force all states … to allow criminals to vote before they have even completed the primary terms imposed on them as a punishment by their fellow citizens through our justice system. So at least some individuals who have shown no compunction whatsoever about breaking the law will be given the ability to help make the law.
“In Virginia,” von Spakovsky explained, “the felon must also show that he has paid all court costs, fines, and restitution to their victims. This proposed bill would completely ignore and override this process, particularly at the expense of victims who are still owed restitution, and grant relief on a wholesale basis, without considering whether someone is really entitled to restoration of his rights.”