- Published on Tuesday, 17 February 2015 10:27
- Written by Roger Clegg
The Heritage Foundation has just published a paper that I co-wrote on legislative efforts to re-enfranchise felons. In this email, I’ve excerpted the second part of the paper (along with the paper’s “Abstract”). This part of the paper argues that automatic re-enfranchisement of felons is unwise as a matter of policy.
But the paper begins by demonstrating in lawyerly detail that, whatever you think as a matter of policy, the Constitution clearly commits this issue to the states. So it is disturbing that Sen. Rand Paul, for example, who claims to be a great champion of the Constitution and its limitations on federal power, is once again pushing a federal bill along with Sen. Harry Reid in this area; the first part of our paper addresses that bill in particular and its blatant unconstitutionality.
Both the original Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment specifically delegate to the states the right to determine the qualifications of voters and to disqualify anyone who participates “in rebellion, or other crime.” Congress cannot override the Constitution through legislation and has no authority to restore the voting rights of felons for federal elections. The American people and their freely elected state representatives must make their own decisions in their own states about when felons should have their civil rights restored, including the right to vote. Requiring a waiting period and an application process is fair and reasonable given the high recidivism rate among felons. Any legislation passed by Congress taking away that power is both unconstitutional and unwise public policy.
Policy Arguments in Favor of Felon Disenfranchisement
Those who are not willing to follow the law cannot claim a right to make the law for everyone else. And when an individual votes, he or she is indeed either making the law—either directly in a ballot initiative or referendum or indirectly by choosing lawmakers—or deciding who will enforce the law by choosing local prosecutors, sheriffs, and judges.
Not everyone in the United States may vote: Thus, children, noncitizens, and those who are adjudicated to be mentally incompetent are not allowed to vote. This nation maintains certain minimum, objective standards of responsibility, trustworthiness, and commitment to our laws for those who are allowed to participate in the solemn enterprise of self-government. It is not unreasonable to suppose that those who, regardless of their race, have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens may also be presumed to lack this responsibility, trustworthiness, and commitment to America’s laws.
Is it too much to demand that those who would make the laws for others—who would participate in self-government—be willing to follow those laws themselves? …
Thus, even if Congress had the constitutional authority to pass this legislation, there are sound public policy reasons why it should not do so. …
Answering the Policy Arguments Against Felon Disenfranchisement
The policy arguments in favor of automatically restoring the rights of all felons to vote are unpersuasive.
“We let everyone else vote.” Again, this is simply not true. America also denies the vote to children, noncitizens, and the mentally incompetent because they, like felons, fail to meet the objective, minimal standards of responsibility, trustworthiness, and commitment to our laws that we require of those who want to participate in the government not only of themselves, but also of their fellow Americans.
“Once released from prison, a felon has paid his debt to society and is entitled to the full rights of citizenship.” This rationale would apply only to felons who are no longer in prison, of course, and might not apply with respect to felons on parole or probation, but even for these “former” felons, the argument is not persuasive. While serving a sentence discharges a felon’s “debt to society” in the sense that his basic right to live in society is restored, serving a sentence does not require society to forget what he has done or bar society from making reasonable judgments based on his past crimes.
For example, as noted, federal law prohibits felons from possessing firearms or serving on juries, which does not seem unreasonable. In fact, as also previously noted, there is a whole range of “civil disabilities” (known as collateral consequences) for felons after their release from prison that apply as a result of federal and state law, listed in a 144-page binder (plus two appendices) published by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. Society is not required—nor should it be required—to ignore someone’s criminal record once he gets out of prison.
“These laws have a disproportionate racial impact.” Undoubtedly, the reason that there is heightened interest in this subject is that a large percentage of felons are African Americans, although in absolute numbers, more whites are affected by felon disenfranchisement than blacks. That is because whites represent a majority of the individuals in state and federal prisons, according to the U.S. Justice Department, and have held that majority since Justice began keeping such records in 1926.
The racial impact of these laws is irrelevant as a constitutional matter. It should also be irrelevant as a matter of policy. Legislators should determine, based on non-racial considerations, what the qualifications or disqualifications for voting are and then let the chips fall where they may. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “Draw lines of crime, of incompetency, of vice, as tightly and uncompromisingly as you will, for these things must be proscribed; but a color-line not only does not accomplish this purpose, but thwarts it.” As a federal court said in an unsuccessful lawsuit against Florida’s felon voting law:
[Black ex-felons had] not been denied the right to vote because of an immutable characteristic but because of their own criminal acts. This is also true of the non-African American class members. Thus, it is not racial discrimination that deprives felons, black or white, of their right to vote but their own decision to commit an act for which they assume the risks of detection and punishment.
The fact that these statutes disproportionately disenfranchise men and young people is not cited as a reason for changing them—as “sexist” or “ageist”—nor does it matter that some racial or ethnic groups may be more affected than others. That criminals are “overrepresented” in some groups at some point in time and “underrepresented” in others is no reason to change the laws. This will probably always be the case, with the groups changing over time and with the country’s demography. If large numbers of young people, black people, or males are committing crimes, then our efforts should be focused on solving those problems.
The answer to that problem is not to increase the political power of criminals.
Much has been made of the high percentage of criminals—and, thus, disenfranchised people—in some communities, but the fact that the effects of disenfranchisement may be concentrated in particular neighborhoods is actually an argument in the laws’ favor. If these laws did not exist, there would be a real danger of creating an anti–law enforcement voting bloc in local municipal elections, for example, which is hardly in the interests of a neighborhood’s law-abiding citizens who are victimized by such felons.
Indeed, the people whose votes will be diluted the most if criminals are allowed to vote will be law-abiding people in high-crime areas—people who are themselves often disproportionately poor and minority. Liberal civil-rights groups lobbying against felon disenfranchisement seem to have less concern for those victims.
“We should welcome felons back into the community.” Because the racial and other arguments are so unpersuasive, it is more and more frequently argued that re-enfranchising felons is a good way to reintegrate them into society. Attorney General Eric Holder has even claimed that felon disenfranchisement laws promote recidivism. As former Attorney General Michael Mukasey has pointed out, however, that claim, which derives from a study in Florida, is flawed:
Florida has had, and indeed has broadened, a system that requires felons to go through an application process before their voting rights are restored. Obviously, those who are motivated to navigate such a process self-select as a group less likely to repeat their crimes. Suggesting that the automatic restoration of voting rights to all felons would lower recidivism is rather like suggesting that we can raise the incomes of all college students if we automatically grant them a college degree—because statistics show that people with college degrees have higher incomes than those without them.
Reintegration of felons into the community is an important goal, and this paper recognizes that restoration of voting rights can be a part of that process. Conversely, it is also important not to suggest to felons that it is hopeless for them to want to rejoin that community.
But restoration of voting rights should be done carefully and on a case-by-case basis once the felon can establish in fact that he has turned over a new leaf. 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. Restoration, however, should not be automatic, because the change of heart cannot be presumed. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in eventually.
Automatic felon re-enfranchisement sends a 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 is also a form of punishment and a method of stigmatization that tells criminals that committing a serious crime puts them outside the circle of responsible citizens. Being readmitted to the circle should not be automatic.
While it is true that a disproportionate number of African Americans are being disenfranchised for committing serious crimes, their victims also are disproportionately black. The logical focus of an organization like the NAACP should be on discouraging the commission of such crimes rather than minimizing their consequences.
Congress does not have the power to force states to allow felons to vote in federal elections. The Constitution, including the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically delegates to the states the right to determine the qualifications of voters and to disqualify anyone who participates “in rebellion, or other crime.” Congress cannot override the Constitution through legislation and has no authority to restore the voting rights of felons for federal elections.
Thus, the American people and their freely elected state representatives must make their own decisions in their own states on when felons should have their civil rights restored. This includes the right to vote. Requiring a waiting period and an application process is fair and reasonable given the high recidivism rate found among felons. Any legislation passed by Congress to take away that power is both unconstitutional and unwise public policy.