Felons: Free to Vote?

Last month Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to over 200,000 convicted felons. The movewas both practical and philosophical.  Naturally, it sparked debate.  Many cheered the decision.  But many voiced deep concern for the impact and precedent that it might set.  The editors of the National Review issued an opinion to that effect.  Their statement articulates the fear surrounding Gov. McAuliffe’s decision.  

I do not share their concerns.  Rather, I believe it is something to support and even celebrate. The backlash against the restoration of voting rights reveals profound insecurities in our cultural psyche.  

First, the strongest case against Gov. McAuliffe’s executive order may be the political one.  It is, after all, hard to see this as a purely magnanimous decree.  While the decision may be a calculated political maneuver, we cannot base our evaluation of the issue on the possible motivations of one man’s heart.  Virginia’s policy will still be moderate compared to other states.  It reflects a slow, but significant shift in thinking across the country.  

The Brennan Center, which advocates for voting rights restoration, reported in 2015 that, “Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have taken action (legislative or executive) to allow more people with past criminal convictions to vote, to vote sooner, or to access that right more easily. That includes reforms in six states over the past five years. And… in 2015, one bill was signed into law in Wyoming, and reform bills moved in at least three additional states.”

So while the action may produce headlines, the policy direction is not radical.  So why the resistance?  One possibility in our current polarization is that we simply do not trust each other across party lines, particularly when votes are at stake.

The backlash against the restoration of voting rights reveals profound insecurities in our cultural psyche.

Second, our insecurities have developed into laws that form a system of perpetual punishment.  We act as if a person’s incarceration, parole, and probation are not enough to satisfy justice.  But we have to ask, are they fully citizens again or not?  And if not, under what rationale should we restrict voting rights?

Remember, these are not felons who are still incarcerated or who are even under parole.  These are citizens who have fulfilled their debt to society.  It is true that we restrict former law-breakers from certain things.  Too many things, in fact, so that they are often loaded with unnecessary collateral consequences. There are, however, reasonable laws that restrict sex offenders from working with children or the serially violent from purchasing weapons.  But voting?  Perhaps we don’t trust our democratic system.  Are we worried that former felons will overhaul our electorate?  Are we really fearful that felons will flood our ballots and ballot boxes?  And what if a few did?  Perhaps, there is among them a great leader ready to serve in public office.

Third, citizenship is a powerful responsibility and basic right. The National Review editors believe that the right to vote should not be given back “lightly,” that returning citizens “have no business” voting, “at least not yet.”  They propose a case by case basis that would presumably evaluate whether each felon has “turned over a new leaf.”  This approach is deeply problematic.  For one, it duplicates the current punitive system.  It adds punishment to what the felon has already served.  What else do they have to prove?  These citizens have served their time.  The burden of proof should not be on the citizen.  It should be on the state, which must prove the need to restrict the right.  Do we want to be in the business of deciding who is worthy of voting?  I may not like the way my neighbor votes.  I may not trust him or his past.  But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t vote.  It is dangerously problematic to think that we could create such criteria and have it be just.

The benefits of this decision are potent.  It is a tangible move away from the specter of voter suppression and racism that haunts our democracy.  It is a move toward restoration.  We live in a country and in a time when there is deep malaise about voting.  We have scores of people who feel disenfranchised from the democratic process.  This is one small move in the right direction, a reform that leans toward the “root sense of powerlessness or meaninglessness that many citizens fee about elections and politics in general”.  It may also restore a little hope in our correctional processes.  

We incarcerate people at high rates and then continue to punish them when they return to our communities.  In this way, it is a practical way to demonstrate a belief in restorative justice.  We cannot expect returning citizens to thrive without restoring some of these basic dignities.   And voting is one of the most beautiful forms of human dignity, for in it we affirm the image of God in each person through our broad electorate.  We should not, in good conscience, deny that for people who have been restored to citizenship.  

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.  www.calvaryreformedholland.org