Politics & Policy

The Felon Franchise

A Democratic strategy?

Would Al Gore be president if felons had voted in Florida in 2000?

Florida is one of seven states that permanently revoke the voting rights of convicted felons. Prior to the 2000 election, the Florida secretary of state’s office cleaned up the voting rolls pursuant to state law and accidentally removed 1,104 eligible voters it believed to be felons. Since Bush won Florida by 537 votes, critics say the purge cost Gore the presidency. Assuming an extremely high turnout by the purged voters, 85 percent of them would have had to vote for Gore to give him the presidency. That’s unlikely.

But that’s not the whole story. The Palm Beach Post discovered that, despite the efforts of the secretary of state, 5,600 ineligible felons voted illegally in Florida in 2000. Sixty-eight percent of these ineligible voters were registered Democrats. Hence, if the state of Florida had made no mistakes in purging ineligible felons from its voting rolls, Bush would have won by over 1,000 votes.

Yet Gore might have won if Florida had not denied felons the right to vote, thereby keeping the ballot out of the hands of about 500,000 Floridians who have served time for various crimes. About 25 percent of the ineligible felons are African American.

Florida is not alone in disenfranchising felons. Forty-eight states take away the right when a citizen is in prison, 29 states do so when a person is on parole or probation, and seven states still deny a felon his ability to vote even after he has completed his sentence. Many states, Florida included, restore the vote under some circumstances. All told, about four million Americans could not vote in 2001 as a result of such state laws, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington group seeking to restore the vote to felons.

Liberals claim Republican legislators deprive felons of the vote for partisan reasons. They argue felons are poor, uneducated, single, and black. They seem likely to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Of course, the partisanship charge is a sword that cuts both ways: If felons nationwide got their franchise restored, Democrats might pick up a million new voters.

Establishment Democrats don’t say much about restoring the voting rights of felons. They are still trying to get over their reputation for being soft on crime. So don’t expect John Kerry to directly argue for getting felons to the polls. That job will be left to liberal interest groups.

They will change the subject. We will hear little about felons and their crimes. We will learn a lot about the disparate racial effects of depriving felons of the vote. We will hear the phrases “poll tax,” “voter intimidation,” and “Bull Connor.” For liberals, America is Selma and it’s always 1963. Still, murderers, rapists, and sex offenders will hardly engender as much sympathy as did Martin Luther King Jr. and other heroes of the civil-rights struggles. Nor should they: Florida, along with 47 other states, deprived felons of the right to vote because of what they did (their crimes) and not who they are (their race).

Liberals are not the only critics. Libertarians argue that many felons lose the vote by breaking laws against drug use and distribution, laws that should not be on the books. That only proves that nonviolent, victimless crimes should not be illegal; it does not defeat the proposition that those who violate the rights of others to life, liberty, or property may be deprived of the right to vote.

That proposition makes sense. Those who violate the rights of others have proven that they want the benefits of society without the burden of obeying its laws. Such free riders can hardly complain when a majority of their fellow citizens denies them the right to choose those who make the laws. Perhaps for that reason, 30 years ago this summer the Supreme Court decided states could constitutionally deprive felons of the vote.

The New York Times recently reported on felons seeking to restore their right to vote in Florida. One felon who failed complained that politicians were standing in judgment over him. During their first debate, someone should ask John Kerry and George W. Bush whether a man convicted of committing “a lewd act on a child” should be allowed to vote in Florida in 2004. Their answers will tell us a lot about the men who would be president.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.

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