Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday that felons who serve their time should get their voting rights back once they are released. Asking states to do this is part of a campaign to remedy certain problems within the criminal justice system that he believes creates an uneven burden on minorities. The move would expand the number of minorities who vote in a disproportionate way, which would in turn help the Democrats in elections.
At the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center, Holder called out the 11 states that continue to withhold full voting rights for convicted felons who have completed their sentences. Those states Holder mentioned are Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, Virginia, Alabama, Nebraska, Tennessee, Wyoming, Arizona, Iowa, and Mississippi.
The governor of Iowa changed the state’s law from allowing voting rights to be automatically restored when the sentence was served completely to an involved process that requires the governor to intervene in every case. According to Holder, after two years with the new law, Iowa has restored voting rights to less than 12 of the 8,000 people who had finished their sentences during the governor’s term. The Iowa governor’s office responded by saying that 21 people had their voting rights restored in 2013 and no applications had been denied.
The attorney general also stated that eight percent of Mississippi felons and 10 percent of those in Florida are currently not allowed to vote. Mississippi’s Attorney General, Jim Hood, responded by saying that he would ensure that voters change the constitution to allow for the restoration of voting rights to felons.
Holder estimates that 5.8 million American citizens are currently not allowed to vote due to prior felony convictions. Of those, 2.2 million are black, which translates to one in 13 black adults. In the states of Kentucky, Florida and Virginia, the number climbs to one in five.
Having served as attorney general for five years, Eric Holder, who said on Tuesday that felons should get their voting rights back, has suggested that he may not hold the office another year. In what may be his last year he is making a concerted effort, which he has called his “Smart on Crime” program, to address the issues that he fought while working in law enforcement. These issues were primarily mandatory drug sentences that are too strong, school policies that cause children to turn to gangs and crime as well as the overcrowding of correctional facilities.
In an effort to reduce prison overcrowding and the diversion of law enforcement funds from crime prevention, Eric Holder ordered federal prosecutors to refrain from pressing charges with mandatory minimum sentences against nonviolent drug offenders. Along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, he asked America’s schools to get rid of disciplinary policies that involve the court system.
There have been positive changes in 23 states that have recently instituted improvements to the voting rights laws. Virginia recently enacted a policy that gives nonviolent former convicts automatic voting rights; a permanent change will require legislation. Kentucky is researching the addition of a constitutional amendment that would grant certain offenders their voting rights. Wyoming is also considering a measure to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons. Nebraska automatically restores rights to felons two years after the completion of their sentences.
Attorney General Eric Holder said giving felons their voting rights back will make their reentry into society smoother and reduce the chance of recidivism.
By Jennifer Pfalz