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Ethics & Religion
Column #2,067
March 22, 2021
Restore Voting Rights After Prison
By Mike McManus

American states vary widely in restoring the right to vote to those convicted of serious crimes. Only two states (Maine and Vermont) plus the District of Columbia allow those in prison to vote while incarcerated for a felony conviction.

California and Connecticut automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison and after being discharged from parole.

Eighteen states restore voting rights immediately upon release from prison (CO, HI, IL, IN, MD, MA, MI, MT, NH, NJ, NY, NV, ND, Oh, OR, PA, RI, and UT).

Twenty-one states restore voting rights only after completing one's sentence plus parole or probation: (AL, AR, GA, ID, IA, KS, LA, MN, MO, NE, NV, NM, NC, OK, SC, SD, TX, WA, WV, WI, VA).

By contrast, Louisiana prohibits those convicted of a felony to vote while in prison or parole or probation. A person has to have been free from prison for five years without another felony conviction - before regaining the right to vote.

Is that reasonable? I think not.

Also problematic are eight states in which voting rights are restored depending on the date or type of conviction, repayment of fines, the outcome of an individual petition to the government or gubernatorial pardon (AL, AZ, FL, DE, KY, MOS, TN, and WY).

It seems to me that a person coming out of prison - or off of probation or parole - should automatically be given back the right to vote. They have paid their debt. Society's goal should be to help any former prisoner become an active citizen in America's culture.

For Louisiana to require a person to be free of crime for five years without another felony conviction before being allowed to vote - is an excessive punishment.

Our goal should be to encourage those coming out of prison to become active citizens who care about their community.

For example, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced recently that he is restoring the voting rights of 69,000 Virginians who completed their sentences for a felony, but remain under probation - a change of the state's policy that he said will help people fully reenter society.

Northam commented that "Probationary periods can last for years. But that's also time in which a person is living in a community, rebuilding their lives. They should be able to exercise those civil rights even if they are still under supervision."

Virginia is just one of three states that permanently disenfranchise people convicted of a felony. More than a half million people previously convicted of a felony live in Virginia.

While the state's governors have in recent years used their powers to grant people their voting rights back, the process is a messy one that is not applied equally across the state.

Bob McDonnell, a Republican who served as Virginia governor from 2010 to 2014, kick-started the process in earnest during his administration, restoring voting rights to about 8,000 people.

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to 173,000 people - a process that was wrapped up in legal disputes. In July, 2016 the state Supreme Court struck down McAuliffe's blanket executive order restoring voting rights to 206,000 felons. McAuliffe then restored rights individually.

Virginia Gov. Northam has so far restored the voting rights of 111,039 Virginians. His administration has also quietly worked to restore the rights of 69,000 Virginians currently on probation. Most of the 69,000 had not applied to have their rights restored, according to the Northam administration. Their situations were reviewed, and approval for restoration of their rights was made on a case-by-case basis at the governor's discretion.

However, why should this process be so complicated? At present, people newly released from prison and entering probation will need to apply for rights restoration.

Why should that be necessary? Northam himself has acknowledged the racist origins of the constitutional provision revoking voting rights of people convicted of a felony.

In 1902 Virginia lawmakers enacted policies to disenfranchise black people. Lawmakers talked of the need to "purify" the ballot - referring to the desire to purge Black voters.

"Too many of our laws were written during a time of open racism and discrimination and they still bear the traces of inequity," Northam stated.

"We must change it so we can get closer to being a state where people can move beyond their mistakes and where justice is our priority," the governor asserted.

Civil rights groups applauded Northam's announcement. "Our democracy is strongest when we all have the opportunity to participate, and our communities are stronger and safer for it," said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the advocacy group, New Virginia Majority.

It is time to give ex-offenders a new future with full voting rights.


Copyright (c)2021 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.


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