Felon Voting Bans Criticized by US Attorney General Holder

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Image of Attorney General Eric Holder.
Source: “Holder Calls on States to Restore Voting Rights to Ex-Felons,” available at washington.cbslocal.com, Feb. 11, 2014

On Feb. 11, 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder called for an end to felon disenfranchisement in the United States. His speech on criminal justice reform at the Georgetown University Law Center appealed to states that still have some form of permanent disenfranchisement to automatically restore the ability to vote to all people convicted of a felony once they complete their term of incarceration, serve all parole and probation, and pay all fines.

Attorney General Holder stated that “Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans – 5.8 million of our fellow citizens – are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions. That’s more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states. And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable… It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values. These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”

The Attorney General went on to say that throughout the United States, “2.2 million black citizens – or nearly one in 13 African-American adults – are banned from voting because of these laws. In three states – Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – that ratio climbs to one in five.”

According to a statement by Florida Governor Rick Scott’s spokesman, Attorney General Holder’s speech “has no effect on Florida’s Constitution, which prescribes that individuals who commit felonies forfeit their right to vote. This is a right that states exercise under the U.S. Constitution and their own respective constitutions.”  In Florida the automatic restoration of the vote to nonviolent felons was ended by Governor Rick Scott after he took office in 2011. At the time, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi defended the change stating that “those who may suggest that these rule changes have anything to do with race, these assertions are completely unfounded. Justice has nothing to do with race. In a recent case, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals examined the historical record and soundly rejected the argument that Florida’s prohibition on felon voting was originally motivated by racial discrimination.”  A previous Florida Attorney General, Bill McCollum, directly opposed felon voting, stating in 2007 that “[a] person who breaks the law should not make the law.”

In Sep. 2013, US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) also came out in support of ending felon disenfranchisement stating that “One in three young black males has been convicted of a felony and they’ve lost their voting rights… I think particularly for non-violent drug crimes where people made a youthful mistake, I think they ought to get their rights back.”

In the 11 most restrictive states, some felons may permanently lose the ability to vote, depending on the crime committed, the time elapsed since completion of the sentence, and other variables. In Maine and Vermont, felons may vote by absentee ballot while in prison. In 13 states convicted felons can vote upon release from prison. Of the remaining 23 states, four allow all felons to vote after serving their term of parole, and 20 states allow all felons to vote after all parole and probation is served.

Sources:

Phillip M. Bailey, “Citing Racial Disparities, Senator Rand Paul Favors Restoration of Felon Voting Rights,” wfpl.org, Sep. 16, 2013

Devlin Barrett, “Change Sought to Give Ex-Convicts Voting Rights,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11, 2014

Pam Bondi, “Clemency Shift Upholds Rule of Law,” tampabay.com, Mar. 16, 2011

Eric H. Holder, “Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks on Criminal Justice Reform at Georgetown University Law Center,” justice.gov, Feb. 11, 2014

Bill McCollum, “McCollum: Be Responsible About Felons’ Rights,” Orlando Sentinel, Apr. 1, 2007

Rick Scott, “Governor Scott and Florida Cabinet Discuss Amended Rules of Executive Clemency,” www.flgov.com, Mar. 9, 2011