The Corner

Law & the Courts

Nebraska Governor Vetoes Bill to Automatically Re-Enfranchise Felons

Late last week, Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill that would have automatically re-enfranchised all felons once their sentence has been served, eliminating the two-year waiting period currently in place. Kudos to Governor Ricketts, and here’s hoping that state legislators resist attempts to get them to override that veto. After all, if you’re not willing to follow the law yourself, it can’t be presumed that you should have a role in making the law for everyone else.

Governor Ricketts pointed out that there are problems under the state constitution with the bill, but much of the discussion also hinged on claims that automatic re-enfranchisement somehow combats recidivism. The governor is right that such claims have no empirical basis, and indeed he is also right that automatic re-enfranchisement removes an incentive for the felon to turn over a new leaf once he gets out of prison. Alas, most felons will return to prison, so the change of heart cannot be presumed, and removing an incentive makes no sense. Hans von Spakovsky and I discussed all this in a Heritage Foundation paper.

Reintegration of felons into the community is an important goal, restoration of voting rights can be a part of that process, and it is also important not to suggest to felons that it is hopeless for them to want to rejoin the larger community.

But the existing two-year period provides a way to show that, indeed, a new leaf has been turned over. When that has been shown, then holding a ceremony — rather like a naturalization ceremony — in which the felon’s voting rights are fully restored would be moving and meaningful. Friends and family can come, a congratulatory speech can be given by a local official, and an important civic point can be made. Automatic restoration, on the other hand, foregoes all that.

And automatic felon re-enfranchisement sends an affirmatively bad message: It says that Americans do not consider criminal behavior so serious that the right to vote should be denied because of it. Not allowing criminals to vote tells them and everyone else that committing a serious crime puts them outside the circle of responsible citizens. Being readmitted to the circle should not be automatic. Going two years without committing a new crime — just one election cycle — is not too much to ask.