Attorney General Eric Holder is urging states to revise laws that restrict the voting rights of felons who have done the time for their crimes. Although almost all states restrict inmates from voting while incarcerated, on parole or on probation, currently 11 states further restrict the voting rights of felons after they have served their sentences. According to Holder, “2.2 million black citizens – or nearly one in 13 African-American adults – are banned from voting because of these laws.” Statistical racial disproportions like these have prompted Holder to question the applications of fairness and equality under the law.
During a speech to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights at the Georgetown University Law Center, Holder spoke strongly about felony disenfranchisement and its “disproportionate” and “unacceptable” negative impact on African-Americans and other people of color. The Associated Press highlights this further with a quote from Valencia Burch, a Las Vegas advocate for restoring voter rights to ex-felons. “Generally, people who are incarcerated are black and brown men … As a result, that voice is being suppressed,” she says.
Continuing to emphasize the impact of felony disenfranchisement on people of color, Holder also spoke about the historical impact of southern states that had deliberately targeted the voting rights of African-Americans in order to “diminish the electoral strength of newly-freed populations.”
After five years as Attorney General and with retirement looming, Holder is focusing intently on race and crime issues. His recommendation that states restore the right to vote to ex-felons is part of his “Smart On Crime” agenda and the Justice Department has set its sights on “Reforming The Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century.” Among other recommendations, Holder has directed the Justice Department to focus on reforms that will, in Holder’s view, be fairer in the enforcement of laws and lessen “disparate impacts” of the criminal justice system. He also wants to revise the sentencing structure for “low-level, nonviolent convictions” and find methods to deter crime and reduce recidivism.
According to Holder, revising “unjust” laws that disenfranchise ex-felons will address one of those reforms by reducing the recidivism rate. He said that ex-felons are already stigmatized and isolated and that denying them voting rights will only prolong that negative state. This, in turn will, “increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”
It is interesting to note the potential political implications of restoring the right to vote to ex-felons. According to The New York Times, had ex-felons not been disenfranchised, they likely would have voted Democrat, not Republican. The author cites a 2002 conclusion by scholars at the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University on the potential election impact of restricted ex-felons on the 2000 presidential election. Had they been able to vote, it’s likely Democrat candidate Al Gore would have been elected president rather than Republican George W. Bush. Despite these implications, Holder does have some bipartisan support for restoring voting rights to felons including that of Republican Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky) whom Holder considers one of his leading allies on this issue.
Holder claims that restoring the right to vote to ex-felons is not just about being fair to those who have served their time and paid their debt to society. He takes the issue even further saying, “It’s about who we are as a nation. It’s about confronting, with clear eyes and in frank terms, disparities and divisions that are unworthy of the greatest justice system the world has ever known.” Given Holder’s speech at the Georgetown University Law Center, to him restoring the right to vote to ex-felons is not just an issue of constitutional “fairness” or a way to restore civic responsibility; it is a civil rights issue for African-Americans.
By Alana Marie Burke