Legally Balloted

|

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack played Santa Claus this 4th of July, handing voting rights back to 50,000 ex-felons and pulling the Hawkeye State out of a small group of states that do not automatically reinstate voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences. Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia maintain blanket felon-disenfranchisement laws.

Stats on ex-convict non-voters, based on research from the Sentencing Project:

• 4.7 million Americans can't vote because of felony convictions
• 500,000 of those 4.7 million are war veterans
• 1.4 million of the 4.7 million are black men

Though crime rates have fallen, the prison population soared to 2.1 million by June 2004, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Justice Department. In 1970, that number was about 200,000.

In 2003, associate editor/criminal supergenius Matt Welch cast a provisional ballot for felon re-enfranchisement, arguing that Democrats have a built-in incentive to get behind this issue. Vilsack, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election, is being criticized by some (though not all) Republicans in his state. "Are we going to let baby rapers and meth producers vote?" wonders Rep. Clel Baudler (R-Greenfield).

And what about the praying mantis killers, Clel, what about them?

NEXT: Video Game Violence: Corrupting the Old?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I do not see much of a difference between taking away the vote of felons forever and taking away the vote of felons for the term of punishment — but it is outrageous, and corrupting, that people’s vote can be taken away at all.

  2. theCoach,
    I see little problem taking away their rights as felons. Felons lose all sorts of rights when they are incarcerated, free movement, bear arms, etc., that we all take as given natural rights. However, once you do the time, you should be free to vote. If felons can legally run for Congress or President, they should be able to vote for the same.

    Though crime rates have fallen, the prison population soared to 2.1 million by June 2004
    Melanie,
    Don’t you think these two items are related, not needing the “though”. More people incarcerated, fewer criminals on the street. Fewer criminals on the street, less crime.

  3. I for one prefer corporal punishment to long prison terms. There’s just something about locking people up for several decades, even violent offenders who might be better off executed, that is just cruel and unusual. I don’t think that you can take someone who has been locked up for 30 years and make a good, productive citizen out of them. We need to try something new, something that lets them reintegrate if they’re repentent and fairly safe.

  4. Mo: the problem with your model is that it costs money to build prisons and make us all safer. Instead, couldn’t we just have fewer streets?

  5. I notice that those states that don’t return rights are all in the South, and that a significant percentage of felons are black……

  6. The problem isn’t that we lift voting rights from felons so much as it is that we have made all kinds of relatively minor and even victimless crimes into felonies.

    This re-enfrachisement thing is treating a symptom, and not the disease.

  7. Mike might be right. Maybe a couple of hard smacks might turn around first time felony kids who are out looking for some fun stealing cars or whatever. Instead of dragging them through the system, give them a trial, if guilty administer punishment right then and there, then sent them home. Saves on the expense of keeping them in holding cells, cuts down on prison rapes, all sorts of up sides?

  8. MikeT,
    I actually wouldn’t mind the corporal punishment thing. It might work for crimes like petty theft and such. For heinous crimes like murder, it doesn’t work so well. For crimes like grand theft or embezzlement of large amounts of money, people will weight, how much is getting horse-whipped worth to me. Lastly, what do you do to the masochist, you know, the ones PAYING to get whipped?

  9. “Though crime rates have fallen, the prison population soared to 2.1 million by June 2004, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Justice Department.”

    This piece of idoicy is something I expect from the MSM, NOT REASON.
    You see Melaine, criminals commit crime. When they are in jail they can’t commit crime, against law abiding citizens anyway.
    So the longer they are in jail the less crime committed.
    What is so hard, twit.

  10. Yep, I feel safe that thousands of people in prison can no longer commit pot smoking against me. Thank you gummint!

  11. I notice that those states that don’t return rights are all in the South, and that a significant percentage of felons are black……

    Good eye.

  12. You see Melaine, criminals commit crime. When they are in jail they can’t commit crime, against law abiding citizens anyway.
    So the longer they are in jail the less crime committed.

    Main Entry: tau?tol?o?gous
    Pronunciation: to-‘t?-l&-g&s
    Function: adjective
    Etymology: Greek tautologos, from taut- + legein to say — more at LEGEND
    1 : involving or containing rhetorical tautology : REDUNDANT
    2 : true by virtue of its logical form alone

    Here’s a question, smart guy: If we know which ones are “teh criminals!” — i.e., they’re the ones in jail — then why don’t we just leave them all in there forever? There will never be another crime again!

  13. “I notice that those states that don’t return rights are all in the South, and that a significant percentage of felons are black……”

    Hey hey hey, now! You’re not being very color blind.

  14. Not a bad idea at all. Phil, if we are talking about crimes of violence. I think the sex offenders, manslaughterers,and muggers should live on Mike T.’s block, as various theories of re-integration are experimented with on a trial and error basis. Mike T.’s neighbors may not agree, but hey, we’re making omelettes here.

    This country is entirely messed up on issues of criminal punishment. Non-violent offenders are often punished too severely, or punished for behaviors which are improperly deemed criminal, while violent offenders, particularly first-time violent offenders, are punished entirely too lightly, if one begins with the thought that the primary purpose of criminal punishment is protection of the public. Then, after people are incarcerated, often for behavior which is improperly deed criminal, we allow prisons to be little Hobbesian jungles where there is no effective rule of law.

    Prison sentences of any length should be normally reserved for violent offenders alone, and then the sentences whould be very, very, long. Prisons whould be places where people are held to even higher, not lower, standards of behavior. One would then seen the homicide rate drop rapidly, given that very few murderers commit homicide as a first violent offense, and those non-violent offenders who did serve short sentences would have been used to being held to a higher standard of behavior.

    The violent offenders, if they ever got out, would only do so after they had become elderly.

  15. Hmmm…this kind of pertains to me: I’ll be going to college in Virginia in the fall. On a slightly off topic note, what’s Virginia like? I’ve never lived there before, but I’ve been all over the South.

  16. To bring this thread back on track (felons getting their voting rights back, for those who zoned out while reading the comments), I would like to know how much of a difference all of this really makes. I mean, how many ex-felons, convicted of serious, violent crimes, actually go out to vote? If this country can only get
    %50 to %60 of the non-felon, not yet convicted, general population to vote in major presidential elections and %30 to vote in off year elections (and the miniscule, barely measurable percent for local elections), do we really think that ex-cons are going to vote? I really don’t know. Have studies been made of this (yes, I am too lazy to look it up myself. Joe, you seem to think that you know everything- can you answer this?) How many, and in what percent to the general population, do ex-cons vote?

  17. Also, I wonder if the sub-set of voting felons trends much more to Republican affiliation than felons as a whole. Somebody call Bernie Ebbers!

  18. Will Allen,

    That’s a really good question. Do Vilsack and his Republican opponents believe that the ex-cons will vote Democratice based on some sort of reprehensible race based measurement (i.e. blacks tend to vote Democratic, a disproportionate number of ex-cons are black, so the Democrats will pick up votes if they are allowed to vote)? Also, if Vilsack does make a break for it in 2008, couldn’t this move play against him in primaries all over the nation? Questions to be pondered…

  19. I don’t know anything about Iowa politics, so I can’t comment on Vilsack’s motivations, but I think the issue is a perfectly legitimate basis for attacking Vilsack if he does run. Some crimes, particularly violent crimes, are such a serious assault on society itself, that it is perfectly reasonable for legislatures to decide that those who engage in such assaults have permenently forfeited their right to participate in governing society.

  20. I’m with R C Dean on this one. I have mixed feelings on letting, say, a thief or rapist vote again. I guess it depends on the circumstances, and what he does with his life after prison, and maybe he should have to wait a while before he votes again.

    But I have no problem letting a pot smoker vote. If he can remember to do it…

  21. I guess I’d say that if a felony doesn’t warrant permenant loss of voting rights it probably doesn’t warrant being classified as a felony. Light ’em if you got ’em……

  22. locking people up for as long as possible and taking away their right to vote gives our government a lot more power than it deserves. A free and just society lets everyone vote–even baby rapists and meth producers. Everyone should have a say in what laws we have to live by. Felons should be able to sit on juries as well.

  23. No, bruce, people who demonstrate, through their chosen behavior, utter and complete contempt for others, should have no role in governing others.

  24. SWEDE muses: To bring this thread back on track (felons getting their voting rights back, for those who zoned out while reading the comments), I would like to know how much of a difference all of this really makes. I mean, how many ex-felons, convicted of serious, violent crimes, actually go out to vote?

    SH: The majority of felony convictions are for drug offenses.

    Several hundred thousand ‘drug’ felons complete their sentence each year. Give em say, 15 years and maybe 4-5 million in number and ask how many of them might vote to end Prohibition and replace it with a system of legalized regulation.

  25. you are right, SteveInClearwater, all the “only convicted on drug possession” felons will definitely vote to repeal those “laws.” However, I did stipulate “serious, violent crime.” 🙂

  26. those who engage in such assaults have permenently forfeited their right to participate in governing society.

    Then why release them at all? They can’t be trusted with a vote, but they can be trusted to drive a car, reproduce, and handle a steak knife? Ridiculous.

  27. I can see permanently disenfranchising the worst felons – murderers, rapists, kidnappers, etc. Those whose crimes did not involve overt acts of violence – thieves of various kinds, frex – ought to have their voting rights reinstated when their incarcertion and/or probation has ended. In my state a felon can’t vote while he is “on paper”, but automatically reclaims the right once he has fulfilled his sentence. It seems to work. There have been a few incidents of felons voting before they should, due to our fouled-up voter-registration system. The Department of Corrections has added a “this is when you can vote” lecture to their debriefings of released prisoners and instructions to probationers.

    Kevin

  28. “Are we going to let baby rapers and meth producers vote?” wonders Rep. Clel Baudler (R-Greenfield).

    Father stabbers!
    Mother rapers!
    Father rapers!

    Father rapers sitting right next to me on the Group W Bench!

  29. Swede,

    The numbers are small, as you suggest. On the other hand, it is a virtual certainty that felon disenfranchisement decided the outcome of Florida in 2000 (talk about your small numbers), and therefore the Presidential election that year. Given the bump every incumbent president gets, and the closeness of the 2004 election, it is reasonable to say that Florida’s laws disenfranchising felons probably decided the 2004 election as well. A small problem can be one that will totally wipe you out only occasionally.

    As far as society goes, I think registering to vote and showing proof of voting should be a condition of parole, like attending school is for some juvenile offenders. Encouraging responsible habits.

  30. Well, rst, when it comes to violent criminals, there is a reasonable argument that they shouldn’t be released at all, or, at least not until they are fairly elderly.

    Look, it isn’t too much to demand of a citizen that, if he or she wishes to participate in governing society, that he or she not engage in felonious behavior, if we can ever get around to having a reasonable standard for defining which behaviors should be seen as felonies. Why should society not demand such a minimal standard of behavior?

  31. No, bruce, people who demonstrate, through their chosen behavior, utter and complete contempt for others, should have no role in governing others.

    Well this eliminates half the supreme court, 2/3’s of congress, and nearly everyone I pass (or get passed by) on my morning commute! You are going to have to narrow the scope, Will!

  32. On the other hand, it is a virtual certainty that felon disenfranchisement decided the outcome of Florida in 2000 (talk about your small numbers), and therefore the Presidential election that year.

    I did not know that. Interesting.

    “Felons for Gore”?

  33. Stevo,

    Absent any evidence otherwise, it is reasonable to assume that felons who choose to vote will do so in the same patterns as non-felons who choose to vote.

    Given the ethnic and income distribution of Florda’s felons, it is obvious that the disenfranchisement cost Gore more votes than Bush. Probably not enough to change any but the closest elections, but that was one close election.

  34. I dunno s.a.m, as much as I share your disdain for Congress and the Supreme Court, I don’t think the contempt the have for their fellow citizens rises quite to the level of somebody who murders, rapes, or violently assaults their fellow citizens. When violent felons cease and desist after being informed that a sufficient majority of fellow citizens have indicated that is their preference, I’ll think you have a point.

  35. Omigod! Felons don’t get to vote.

    Jesus Chrysler, I can’t think of much that’s lower priority than this.

    Besides, I’ve known since I was 12 that losing the right to vote is ONE of MANY drawbacks to commiting felonies.

  36. …or violently assaults their fellow citizens.

    Will, I consider drug tests as a violent assault on my right to privacy and dignity even though I pass them everytime! I am a victim of bad and draconian policy just as a rape victim is to a rapist. No matter how hard I resist, I just make matters worse for myself and a segment of the population thinks I deserve it for the lifestyle I choose (I am often seen with hippy liberals or gun toting conservatives.)

    I don’t think the contempt the have for their fellow citizens rises quite to the level of somebody who murders, rapes, or violently assaults their fellow citizens.

    You ever buy a $800 toliet seat or $1,500 hammer while reducing the budget for protective equipment for soldiers allegedly fighting for your freedoms? (Purely a rhetorical question and “allegedly” is not meant to question whether the Iraq War was legitimate or worth fighting.)

    Anyway, I understand your point and lean that direction myself. However, not all felonies should cost a person the voting rights in the future. Reasonable mistakes made as a youth should be life lessons, not life killers.

  37. s.a.m. you don’t do your position any service when you analogize between drug tests, however illegitimate they may be, and being raped.

  38. If you are in jail, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote. If you are out of jail and living in society you should be allowed to vote.

    What’s so damn difficult? Whether or not *YOU* believe in rehablitation is of no consequence. You commit a crime, you serve the punishment, and then hopefully you go back to society. If you commit another crime then back to jail. But how on earth can people justify a lack of voting rights for someone AFTER they have served their punishment.

    If they are safe enough to be released into society, then they are safe enough to vote.

    Maybe we should brand them with a scarlett ‘F’ for felon as well??

  39. It is justified, Tom, if a majority of people, speaking through their legislatures, decide that those who commit felonies, or certain classes of felonies, should no longer participate in governing society. In other words, they decide that permenant loss of voting rights is PART OF the punishment.

    Why does demanding that people never commit felonies, or certain classes of felonies (ignoring for now the number of behaviors which are wrongly deemed felonious) if they wish to vote, seem such a high standard to meet? Is it really so difficult to avoid raping, robbing, embezzling a couple million bucks, or engaging in manslaughter?

  40. If an offender holds political participation as a value, then the prospect of having his voting rights restored at some point may be an additional incentive to complete his sentence without violating parole or probation rules. If he’s the type of person who doesn’t care about such things, whether his voting rights are permanently or only temporarily revoked won’t make a difference.

    I would never require political participation of any kind as a condition of probation or parole, however. That smells too much of machine politics. Of course, that may be just what some of those advocating restoration of rights want.

    Kevin

  41. Those who support returning voting rights to felons on the basis of “they’ve done their time”. A comparison to a topical issue of the day; sex offender registeries – are they legimtimate? These folks have served their time – why are we still tracking them? If they’re too dangerous to be released without being tracked, why release them in the first place? I don’t see anything a priori wrong with denying felons the right to vote, nor to I see anything a priori wrong with returning said right. Just wondering if those who support returning the franchise would also think that sex offender registeries and notices are illigitimate excercises of state power.
    -Karl

  42. Karl,

    Another example would be the ban on gun ownership.

    A sex offender living his life is a potential threat to the safety of those around him, especially if they don’t know his history and let their guard down. Someone with a history of violence in posession of a gun is also a potential threat, and a much greater threat than if he did not have a firearm.

    A granny-raping mass murderer, on the other hand, does not become any more dangerous by voting.

    So, in the other two examples, the restrictions on freedom make people safer. Denying voting rights does not.

  43. s.a.m. you don’t do your position any service when you analogize between drug tests, however illegitimate they may be, and being raped.

    Will, I suspected that to be the case right after writing the comment, however, someone has to put it in perspective. Without ever being in the shoes of a rape victim, drug tests feel like rape to me.

  44. What is lost in this argument is that most of these states with “permanent” disenfranchisement allow felons to petition for reinstatement of their voting rights on an individual basis.

  45. “small group of states that do not automatically reinstate voting rights”

    This is a non-story. This is about felons being too lazy to file the proper forms to get their voting rights reinstated.

    And yes, polls of felons show that they are 98% Democrat, so don’t tell me that Hillary Clinton is pushing this issue through the goodness of her heart.

  46. s.a.m., the problem is that somebody who thinks an illegitimately mandated drug quest is akin to being raped HAS no perspective. Just because I say being made to get a permit to put a sign up on my lawn feels like Kristalknacht to me doesn’t mean I’m putting things in perspective. It means I’m loony.

  47. joe – Thanks for a non-snarky reply that actually makes sense! 🙂 I can’t really think of a good reason why a convicted felon shouldn’t be allowed to vote – other than the fact they may overwhelmingly vote for Democrats! The only potential reason is pure punishment, I guess. On the gun issue, echoing some of the posters above re: the number of things that are called felonies, I don’t necessarilly support restricting the 2nd amendment right of felons either – violent felons, sure.
    -K

  48. karl, pure punishment is a perfectly reasonable goal of the criminal justice system, as long as it is not considered cruel and unusual. Given the percentages of people who have the right to vote and choose to not exercise it, no reasonable argument can be made that denying the vote amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. This is an issue on which reasonable citizens can differ, and they should hash it out in their state legislatures.

  49. Will-

    s.a.m. has some hard core anxieties, I know the guy. He literally can’t pee in a cup and he has to submit annually, as I do. When he’s managed to pee, he passes. And, he is way into his job and doesn’t want to quit. The hell they put him through. Sometimes its comical, but boy does he fear that day. Now I have to look out for saying this! lol

  50. When he’s managed to pee, he passes.

    Guilty until proven innocent! Its good to be an American! 🙂

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.