If you voted last week, you may have seen some new faces in the line to cast ballots. College kids who have turned 18 since the last election. Naturalized immigrants eager to exercise one of the privileges of citizenship. Even a few ex-convicts.
Or maybe more than a few. In most places, anyone convicted of a felony loses the right to vote for some period—while he's behind bars, until he's completed his term of probation, or even for life. But in recent years, 23 states have revised their laws to let more onetime criminals take part in this ritual of democracy, and the changes have had a noticeable effect.
According to a new report by Nicole Porter of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, "As a result of the reforms achieved during the period from 1997-2010, an estimated 800,000 persons have regained the right to vote."
It's an unlikely development. True, the case for letting former inmates vote is easy to make. It recognizes them as individuals capable of rehabilitation. It encourages them to reintegrate into society.
But let's face it: There is not a huge incentive for state legislators to care about this disenfranchised group, since disenfranchised people don't vote. Beyond the ranks of felons and their families, most people don't know or care much about the issue.
Granting a benefit to those who have broken the law can be portrayed as soft on crime. When the idea began to get attention back in the 1990s, some Republicans even worried that easing the bans, which have a disproportionate effect on African-Americans, would only help Democrats at the polls.
In spite of all these impediments, though, a lot of states have liberalized their laws. One pioneer was George W. Bush, who as governor of Texas signed legislation automatically restoring the franchise to inmates who have served their sentences. That decision gave 317,000 people the right to vote. Other red states have inched the same direction, including Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Nebraska.
That's a credit to Republican politicians who grasped the basic indefensibility of the policy. It's not as though barring felons from voting is a deterrent to crime, and it's not as though bands of ex-cons are plotting to gain political power.
For that matter, disenfranchisement is of no consequence to incorrigible criminals, who are more apt to see Election Day as a chance to burglarize unoccupied homes than an opportunity to shape economic policy. Most of the people affected by restrictive policies are people who have cleaned up their acts enough to care about being participants in our system of government.
The political consequences of the reforms are hard to detect, if they exist at all. Texas is every bit as Republican as it was in 1997.
Florida, which had one of the harshest policies, now automatically restores the vote to those convicted of some crimes and made it easier for others to regain it. The measure, pushed by then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, helped some 150,000 people. They apparently did not turn out in droves to vote for him in his independent U.S. Senate race, which he lost to Republican Marco Rubio.
Utah, Montana, and North Dakota remain as red as a fire truck even though felons are eligible to vote as soon as they complete their sentences. Vermont and Maine allow felons to vote while they are in prison, and Sentencing Project executive director Marc Mauer notes that "they have not been taken over by criminals." For that matter, Republicans just captured the Maine legislature and the governorship.
The puzzle is that the changes have come about when there are no important constituencies to press for them. Mauer says that his group's campaign against strict disenfranchisement laws helped spark interest among legislators and ordinary citizens.
"Some of these policies had been in place for 150 years, and no one had ever looked at them," he recalls. "Some struck people as extreme, like a lifetime ban for one offense committed at age 18." Reform attracted the support of the conservative Prison Fellowship, as well as the American Correctional Association.
Eventually, all this made a difference in policy. In a period of often bitter divisions, we have a rare case of simple good sense overcoming partisan impulses. "Sometimes," says Mauer, "politicians do things for the right reasons."
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