The Corner

A Couple of Other Points on Felon Voting

Hans von Spakovsky and I have a column today on Governor Terry McAuliffe’s lamentable decision last Friday to reenfranchise over 200,000 felons in Virginia.  But the news coverage of that decision calls me to make a couple of additional points.

Over eleven years ago, I had a column on National Review Online debunking the claim that racism explains why felons are currently disenfranchised.  I was prompted to write it because a number of bien-pensants were making this claim at that time, which I suspected could be traced to misinformation being fed to them by the “the well-funded and ubiquitous felon-reenfranchisement movement.”

It’s still happening.

The New York Times has an editorial today that states, “Felon disenfranchisement laws … were enacted during the Reconstruction era in a racist effort to make it harder for newly freed African-Americans to vote.”  And, in an editorial titled, “Felon voting bans have a racist past,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune refers to the “the racist rationale that has underpinned state laws disenfranchising felons after their release from prison.”

Those interested in the truth can read my old column linked to above, as well as a paper that Hans von Spakvosky and I did more recently and my testimony before Congress.  The bottom line is that, while over a hundred years ago five Southern states did target newly-freed slaves with their disenfranchisement laws, those particular laws are no longer on the books and could be easily challenged and struck down if they were, and the practice of disenfranchising felons has roots that predate those laws and has been followed in the other states for good reasons that have nothing to do with race.

Not that the truth matters to some people. 

While I’m at it, let me address another common — and wrong — argument for letting felons vote.  That’s the argument that, as soon as you’ve served your prison sentence, you should be able to vote because you’ve “paid your debt to society.” 

My hat is grudgingly off to the person — no doubt a felon or a liberal or both — who came up with that phrase.  It sounds plausible but, when you think about it, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I mean, it’s not like, when you rob a liquor store, you’re just borrowing something from society the way you borrow money from a bank, and if you go to prison then you’ve paid it back, and we’re all square and nobody can hold it against you. 

It’s not like society says, “Hey, we’ll make a deal with you, and you can rob a liquor store, but if we catch you, then you have to agree to go to prison.  We feel like that’s a good deal for us, getting to lock you up and pay for your room and board, and we’re willing to let you try to rob a liquor store if you let us do that.  Banks like to receive loan payments, and we like to lock people up — it’s worth it to banks to loan money if they get repaid, and it’s worth it to us to let people rob liquor stores so long as we can lock people up.”  

As I said, this is silly, and so this paid-your-debt-to-society argument really doesn’t make much sense.  There’s no reason society ought to forget the fact that you’ve robbed a liquor store if that’s a relevant fact, just because you’re no longer in prison.  For example, maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to own a firearm. 

And maybe, recidivism rates being well over fifty percent, the fact that you’ve been released from prison doesn’t mean you should automatically and immediately be presumed to be committed to our laws and responsible enough so that you can participate in the sacred enterprise of self-government. Maybe, instead, you should have to show you’ve turned over a new leaf and are willing to follow the laws that you’ll be making for other people, directly or indirectly, when you vote.


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