We have an opportunity to clarify and simplify voting rights for felons


I know it looks like I’m just reposting “Move right away on marriage equality“, with “marriage equality” scratched out and “voting rights” scribbled in, but I assure readers I do get that these are two different issues, the “Vote NO On Both” campaign theme notwithstanding. They do have a common irony, however, in that the Republicans who put the amendments on the ballot revealed something and thereby offered an opportunity. The opportunity they exposed to advance voting rights isn’t as clear cut as marriage equality, but it’s still there.

Think back to the voter fraud fraudsters claims they found enormous numbers of felons voting. They didn’t actually find more then a few, and they undermined their claim fraud is common, but they showed us something. Not only did voter fraud prove scarce, but the tiny amount that was real was all former felons voting, or registering to vote (likewise illegal), before their right were restored. Most charges of illegal voting or registering were dropped for lack of proof the former felon knew they couldn’t vote yet, which makes sense since few people would risk going back to jail just to cast one vote. So clearly hundreds of former felons found the rules confusing, and those are just the ones who erred on the side of voting. How many former felons are mistaken the other way, meaning, their rights are restored, but they aren’t sure or think they can’t vote, so they don’t?
There’s no way to know the number since a former felon could be aware they can vote again, but just choose not to. If there’s ever been a poll of felons, someone fill me in. I don’t like going off anecdotes, but anecdotes are all we’ve got, and people who have done a lot of election campaign canvassing have probably run into someone who said their criminal record means they can never vote again. They actually can vote once they’re “off paper”, completely done with probation and parole, which sounds clear, but there must be something confusing going on because a lot of former felons are confused. The state isn’t spelling it out when their rights are restored, and states vary in when they let felons vote again, if they even do. There’s a source of the confusion: many states never give voting rights back, and there appears to be a widespread perception that is works that way everywhere.

Presumably we want felons to vote since that’s what a responsible citizen is supposed to do, yet through allowing confusion on the point, we’re disenfranchising some number of people. Nationally, by not allowing former felons to vote, how many aren’t allowed to vote? We’re an incarceration-happy country, meaning millions of Americans can’t vote because they went to prison. So here’s the next frontier in voting rights. Let’s create a standard that’s both clear and promotes responsible behavior. One clear standard would be you can’t vote if you’re in jail, can vote if you’re out. If your trip to the polling place isn’t stopped by a locked cell door, your vote is legal. Simple.

Some states never take voting rights away, even during incarceration. I can see the reasoning, that most convicts are going to get out at some point, and it’s better to have them be connected to the outside. I don’t know how prisoner voting works, but obviously such states manage. That would be fine, though politically, probably too much. However, allowing voting once they’re out of prison is a common standard. Changing Minnesota to that standard should be viable as common, fair, as a way to encourage responsible behavior and, something that ought to make the voter fraud claimants happy (I know it doesn’t, but let’s assume rationality) since it would put an end to the little real voter fraud we have.

In 2009, the legislature passed a bill requiring the state to send a letter to each felon informing them when their rights were restored. Gov. Pawlenty vetoed it. It wouldn’t have changed current rules, merely required the state to tell former felons they were allowed to vote again. As to why something so eminently reasonable and incremental was vetoed, Pawlenty said citizens should be responsible enough to figure it out for themselves. Funny, the state tells us when out drivers licenses are reaching expiration, and our car registrations, and our boat registrations.

Some time before that Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, tried to require probation and parole officers to have a meeting with felons about to complete their supervision to tell them what rights were about to be restored, but that effort didn’t get anywhere. Like the letter, it wouldn’t have changed the rules, but merely required the state to make them clear to individual former felons. So we have two issues: what the rules should be, and whether felons should actually be told what they are. Right now, we have a standard that’s harsher than many states, and, judging from how often felons get it wrong, confusing.

Across the country, there seems to be roughly four million former felons who can’t vote under their state’s rules. I didn’t see figures for Minnesota specifically, but again, that figure is low because it doesn’t count the felons whose rights are restored, but they don’t know it or aren’t sure and don’t want to take the risk. The time has come to reenfranchise them.

Are there partisan implications? Without a poll of former felons, I hesitate to make a guess, but Republicans sure seem to think so. The implication was clear when they claimed the number of illegally voting felons was greater than Al Franken’s margin of victory in 2008 (turned out not to be so when the cases were whittled down to the real ones, but anyway), a fact which would make no sense without the assumption all felons vote Democratic. It does happen former felons are disproportionately minority, from the HuffPo link:

Punishing people with felony records hits African Americans harder than other races: 7 percent of blacks are disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the rest of the country, the study found. The numbers are more drastic in Florida and Virginia, political battlegrounds considered crucial in deciding the outcome of November’s election. In Virginia, 20 percent of blacks can’t vote. In Florida, that number is 23 percent. President Obama carried both states in 2008. (Kentucky, which is safely in Republican hands, is the only other state where 1 in 5 African Americans can’t vote.)

Reliable information for Latinos wasn’t available, according to Christopher Uggen, the lead author of the report. Uggen said that Hispanics are disenfranchised at a rate higher than whites, but lower than blacks.

Racial makeup aside, maybe former felons are a bit like other groups Republicans try to stop from voting: Republicans try to stop certain groups from voting while Democrats try to protect their voting rights, and those groups vote Democratic — a bit of a chicken and egg question perhaps. So maybe like with young voters and low income voters, etc., Republican efforts to interfere with their votes is a reason to vote Democratic. Still, isn’t there a principle here? Just saying GOP, Democrats fight back against photo ID even though it would disenfranchise elderly voters, who tend to vote — Republican.

So now that the voter fraud fraudsters have done us the favor of showing us that the tiny amount of actual fraud is all felons whose rights aren’t restored yet, let’s jump on it this next legislative session, and at a minimum clarify the rules. The best way to clarify the rules is to let anyone out of prison vote. If you can get to the polling place, you’re legal; if the guard says get back in your cell, you’re not. Hard to be mistaken. The real voter fraud would be gone — all of it. Surely that’s what the photo ID advocates want, isn’t it?