Friday, February 18, 2005
Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) is pushing for legislation that would allow ex-felons to vote. The measure is one element in a larger Election Reform Bill. Currently an estimated 4.7 million Americans – about 2.6 percent of the population – cannot vote because of their criminal records, but the proposed legislation restores voting rights for felons who have repaid their debt to society.
There isn’t a great deal of information about this particular piece of the proposed legislation, but it appears the right to vote would be restored after every convicted felon has served his or her sentence, without regard for the offense for which they were convicted.
Some examples of common felonies are: armed robbery, arson, assault, battery, rape, murder, manslaughter, attempted murder/homicide, kidnapping, embezzlement, extortion, activity for profit involving child abuse/neglect/exploitation, adoption schemes, prostitution (or related crimes), adulterating drugs, poisoning, bribery, burglary, criminal sexual conduct, cruelty toward or torture of any person, filing false claims, fraud, mayhem, negligent homicide, larceny, obtaining property by false pretense, and receiving or concealing stolen property.
Our society once took it seriously when its people broke felony laws, and rightly so. Many of these crimes involve physical harm to innocent citizens, and sometimes death. And so additional penalties were added to jail time, fines, and the occasional execution as punishment for breaking society’s rules. Society says to its citizens, “We have rules that protect each of us and our society as a whole. We expect each of you to follow them. If you do not follow them, you will be punished, and part of that punishment is the loss of certain rights and privileges accorded to law-abiding citizens.” Loosely translated it says if you don’t play by the rules, you lose the privilege of enjoying all of the wonderful things our country makes available to you.
Yes, it is true that the debt to society has been paid once a convicted felon has served his or her sentence. And yes, it is also true that some criminals become rehabilitated while serving their sentence. But rehabilitation is not guaranteed, and the recidivism rate is very high, meaning that most convicted felons are not rehabilitated. This bill would restore the right to vote to people who have a high likelihood of committing other crimes. Does this make any sense at all?
The bill also makes it a federal crime to commit certain election-related crimes, such as deceptive practices like sending flyers into minority neighborhoods telling voters the wrong voting date, and makes these practices a felony punishable by up to a year of imprisonment. Leaving aside for the time being that this feature seems targeted to one segment of the political spectrum while ignoring the sins of the other segment, people who tried to manipulate the election system would lose their right to vote, but only until they had paid their debt to society. Then they would have their right to vote restored, rehabilitated or not, allowing them to fully partake of the right and privilege that they once tried to misuse.
These days, one may rightly wonder if society still takes felony crimes seriously. Rather than acting to protect ourselves from opportunistic or violent rule-breakers, we now seem more intent on finding excuses for them, and discovering ways to avoid punishing bad behavior.