No good reason to deprive ex-convicts of voting rights

CHICAGO — CHICAGO - When a convicted felon completes his time behind bars and returns to society, he has a basic choice to make. He can return to the thug life, preying on innocents and spurning civilized norms. Or he can change his ways, stay out of trouble and follow such wholesome customs as getting a job, taking on a mortgage, raising kids and participating in democracy.

Well, except for participating in democracy. Though we expect ex-convicts to remake themselves to fit into society, we don't want to get carried away. Felons get most of their basic rights back once they've served their sentences, but in many states, they don't automatically regain the franchise.


Heck, if you let former offenders vote, next thing you know they'll want to pay taxes.

One of the states that cancel voting rights is Florida, whose experience in the 2000 presidential election showed that ex-cons are not the only people who can be adversely affected by this policy. Thousands of Floridians showed up at the polls only to be told that their names appeared on lists of felons barred from voting. The lists reportedly turned out to be rife with errors, and lots of upstanding citizens didn't get to cast their ballots.


That episode forced Americans to reconsider the practice known as "felony disenfranchisement." In 2001, a bipartisan commission headed by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter issued a report proposing a raft of election reforms, one of which was to let ex-cons reclaim their voting privileges. In the last four years, a number of states have eased or eliminated their proscriptions.

Today, most states lift the ban once an offender has completed his sentence, including any time on probation or parole. But according to the Sentencing Project in Washington, seven states deprive convicts of the vote for life. Another seven disenfranchise some offenders permanently or impose a waiting period to get back voting rights. In Florida, which requires most felons to go before a clemency board to request renewed privileges, some 600,000 who have served their time may not vote.

What is the policy supposed to accomplish? It makes some sense to say no prison graduate should be trusted with a firearm, since guns can be very useful to anyone with criminal intent. But nobody ever held up a store with a punch-card ballot.

We let ex-convicts marry, reproduce, buy beer, own property and drive. They don't lose their freedom of religion, their right against self-incrimination or their right not to have soldiers quartered in their homes. But in many places, the assumption is that they can't be trusted to help choose our leaders.

Many of them can be. The pleasures of long-term confinement serve to deter a lot of them from reverting to mischief. If we thought criminals could never be reformed, we wouldn't let them out of prison in the first place. If we regard voting as a commendable activity, we should encourage it among ex-convicts as a way of reintegrating them.

The felons who are incorrigible are not likely to exercise the franchise anyway. They're too busy stealing cars and mugging old ladies. The people hurt by the loss of voting rights are the ones who want to live normal, productive lives. All disenfranchisement does is inflict a humiliating disability on offenders trying to stay on the right track.

The chief obstacle to change is not that the idea lacks merit, but that it could tilt the electoral balance. One study calculated that if all those 600,000 excluded felons had voted in Florida, Al Gore would have won the state and the presidency. So Republicans may be forgiven for a lack of enthusiasm.

In fact, though, most of those offenders probably wouldn't have voted, and it's by no means guaranteed they would go heavily Democratic anyway. With the recent plague of corporate corruption, who knows? Some correctional facilities may even become GOP strongholds.


The Sentencing Project reports that John Kerry favors letting ex-convicts vote. As governor of Texas, George W. Bush signed a bill restoring the vote to felons as soon as they finish serving their time.

This is one of those cases in which we should do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may. Depriving ex-convicts of the ballot is a mindless form of punishment that only discourages them from becoming upstanding members of the community. They'd be better off if we let them vote, and so would the rest of us.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.