Attorney General Eric Holder and a number of his progressive allies are calling for an end to laws that prevent many felons from voting after their sentences have been served. The cynical among us (and here I count myself among them) detect in this the odor of self-serving politics, but Mr. Holder et al. argue that it is a matter of justice. The argument is made on two main fronts: The first is that felons have “paid their debt” to society and therefore should be treated as ordinary citizens. The second is that our population of disenfranchised felons is disproportionately non-white and poor, and thus felon disenfranchisement falls most heavily upon communities already burdened with other disadvantages.
The first comes very near to an argument about first principles, about which debate is generally fruitless. Either it seems to you just and prudent that people who have shown a fundamental disregard for the law should be prevented from having a hand in making it, except in those circumstances in which the relevant authorities have made case-by-case judgments to the contrary, or it does not. My own view is that felon disenfranchisement is generally just, and that, even in those circumstances in which it is questionably so, prudence counsels disallowing felon voting as a broad principle.
But what of the second argument? Do the progressives have a point here, or is the drive to restore felons’ voting rights simply parochial Democratic self-interest?
Voting is not the only right of which felons are stripped. If justice demands restoring felons’ voting rights, then surely it demands restoring other rights to them as well.
For example, felons are barred in many places from serving as public-school teachers. While that may strike most of us as eminently sensible for certain classes of felons — sex offenders, the habitually violent — it generally covers all felons, including those convicted of nonviolent, non-sexual offenses such as credit fraud and tax evasion. In many cases, it includes felons who have been pardoned. Some public-sector jobs are denied to felons on obvious grounds — working as police officers, for example — but in some jurisdictions felons are categorically excluded from all government employment. Federal rules specifically prohibit felons from holding many government jobs. And many private-sector jobs are off-limits to felons as well. If justice demands that felons be restored all of their fundamental rights, then how can we justify employment discrimination against them? Under what consistent moral principle ought a felon be a full citizen so far as voting is concerned but an untouchable so far as a job as an elementary-school principal is concerned?
Eric Holder has not given any speeches about restoring felons’ rights to work in public schools.
In some (but not all) cases, felons are excluded from certain welfare benefits, with drug offenders being barred from residence in public housing in some jurisdictions. Again, this seems a prudent policy, but one that is inconsistent with the argument that it violates the principles of justice to extend sanctions against felons beyond their formal penal terms.
Discrimination against felons in government employment and in government housing runs directly contrary to progressives’ second argument about voting rights. Poor people with relatively few job prospects are precisely those most likely to be in need of government housing, and for many members of disadvantaged communities, government jobs are the most accessible means for achieving financial independence. From a practical point of view, it surely is the case that a good job and a decent place to live would be of far more benefit to a recently released felon than would be an opportunity to cast a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Eric Holder does not see it that way. Perhaps it has not occurred to the attorney general that among the many opportunities denied to felons is the realistic possibility of ever getting a job working for the attorney general.
Felons are even denied the protections of our most fundamental charter of liberties, the Bill of Rights, the second item on which secures a very hard-won political liberty that is specifically denied to felons in almost all circumstances. Within certain parameters, states have broad authority to conduct elections as they see fit, but their electoral practices may not violate the Constitution. In the case of felons, the curtailment of certain fundamental liberties secured by the Bill of Rights is a matter of broad agreement among conservatives and so-called liberals both.
Eric Holder has not given any speeches about restoring felons’ Second Amendment rights.
Further, in many jurisdictions felons are broadly excluded from running for office. (Here we see an inversion of the Illinois practice, in which residents tend to become felons after being elected to high office.) If voting for a candidate is fundamental to justice in a democratic republic, then it can hardly be the case that standing as a candidate for office could be less fundamental.
Eric Holder has not given any speeches about that, either.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is keenly interested in private businesses that categorically exclude felons from their staffs, and the agency makes its case on “disparate impact” grounds, i.e. that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately affected. But if disparate impact is to be our standard, then surely it is a relevant standard when it comes to government jobs, welfare benefits, the Bill of Rights, and standing for office.
The attorney general is manifestly interested in felons’ votes; if he has an interest in other, arguably more vital, aspects of their lives, he is keeping that interest scrupulously private. It’s too bad that using the bully pulpit of the attorney general’s office for narrow partisan self-interest is not a felony, or even a misdemeanor.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.