17 February 2009

Not Gonna Let Felons Vote

The General Assembly spiked a bill which would have added a provision to the Virginia Constitution allowing the General Assembly powers to return voting rights to felons instead of just the governor.

Y'know, I don't have a problem with non-violent felons getting their right to vote back after a period of time. I'd probably set the time period at 10 years after their last conviction. I'd say "when their probation ends" or 10 years whichever is longer, except for the fact that I've seen more than one judge say "indefinite" probation. I think even "indefinite" probation is limited at maximum to the amount of time suspended, but in Virginia you can have 20 years suspended for any larceny of $200 (and I've seen it done).

Violent felons (rapists, murderers, robbers) don't have my sympathy here. There are certain acts which should serve to permanently segregate someone from the community.

I see this battle being fought over and over and over again. I've come to realize it's more of a philosophical debate than anything else. After all, how many people who are out there committing felonies are voting or will ever vote? When I was doing defense work I handled hundreds of felonies and I can only remember one in which the client was seriously worried about losing his right to vote. I suspect there are some people out there who have kept there noses clean, burning to get their right to vote back, and can't get the governor to restore them. I just can't see it being a huge number.


Anonymous said...

How about California's rule:

“A person entitled to register to vote shall be a United States citizen, a resident of California, not in prison or on parole for the conviction of a felony, and at least 18 years of age.” (Cal. Const. Art. II, Sec. 4; Cal. Elec.
Code Sec. 2101)

Their sentence is what they needed to be "rehabilitated" and punished for their crime, right? So when it's done, it's done. Let them vote.

Anonymous said...

We recently had a High Court decision in Australia restoring right to vote for those serving sentence less than three years. The numbers aren't huge, but we have compulsory voting here so they all count. In some seats in our parliament, the margins are a few votes. The progressive stripping down of the franchise has been a basically partisan political process here, so as a citizen I was quite glad to see the vote restored.

The High Court's judgement is at...


Anonymous said...

76% or more of the jurisdictions in this country either (1) allow felon voting from inside prison; or (2) restore voting rights automatically either (a) on release from prison/parole; or (b) on completion of all post-release supervision.


So, Legislator Ken's "reasonable" position for non-violent felons is still a fairly harsh rule, tending much further towards disenfranchisement than do most places in this country.

The arguments in the last paragraph of this post are, seriatim: that lots of felons in Virginia don't want to or tend to vote; that most of them don't care that they can't; and that lots of the remaining few can probably succeed in bending the Governor's ear (!! -- I'm sure when it's Gov. McDonnell this will be a breeze).

It's a "philosophical debate," Ken says. Yes: the governing philosophy of this country is that the people elect their own government. Not "the people who have never pissed off the wrong prosecutor" - but the people, period. Meanwhile Ken's offered philosophy is "if you've ever been convicted of a violent felony then I don't like you and politically you ought to be an invalid for the rest of your life, taxed and governed with no say in the matter whatsoever." I know which one I prefer.

Voting is a fundamental right, whether or not it's exercised, whether or not somebody is a felon. Virginia is an outlier in this area; its felon-disenfranchisement laws are starkly unjust, and (IMO) unconstitutional.

Last, a question for the author, whose blog I have read off and on since sometime in 2004 -- and I don't mean this as any kind of ad hominem attack, it's based in genuine curiosity -- did you ever really enjoy criminal defense work? It seems so plain that your sympathies lie on the side of law enforcement...

Windypundit said...

If you're going to prevent felons from voting, you should restore the vote the day they are released from prison. If the state is not willing to spend the money to keep them in jail, I doubt the sincerity of the desire to keep them from voting. Besides, release from jail is a nice bright line.

Feisty said...


Very interesting topic, and I appreciate the post as I've thought about this issue for some time. The loss of the right to vote is quite serious, though I agree with you that most felons probably couldn't care less, or at least, most violent felons probably didn't vote before they were convicted anyway.

But perhaps it is for that reason that I see little risk to reinstating the voting rights of felons, and everyone else, as soon as they are released from prison. There are two parts to my reasoning -- the first is that society will likely not suffer any harm, as most felons, having not voted in the past, are unlikely to vote in the future. My second argument would be that a few felons, given the opportunity to vote and participate in democratic society, might gain some understanding of the importance of living within the law and working with others to achieve a better outcome for themselves and society as a whole.

I'll grant that this would be a small group, but if most felons never exercised their right to vote before conviction, why bother taking it away?

Years ago, I worked as an advocate for at-risk youth, and I spent much of that time doing counseling in county and city jails. Even though most of my clients were incarcerated for misdemeanor offenses, I would have been overjoyed if I had heard even one of them take an interest in politics and society as a whole.

I think everyone should be encouraged to vote, felons included. If felons have such a significant sway on our political system that they create chaos, we should start looking at the systemic problems that encourage felony offenses -- poverty, ignorance, desperation, and the like.