Atty Gen Holder Calls for End to Felon Voting Restrictions

It’s called felon disenfranchisement and it affects millions of men and women in the U.S.—the removal of voting rights from someone convicted of a felony. While the process of getting those rights back after a sentence is served varies from state to state, Attorney General Eric Holder recently called on all states to repeal laws that hinder the restoration of rights.

Losing your voting rights is just one long-term and possibly permanent consequence of a felony conviction—whether it’s for drugs or a violent crime. While supporters of this law and others like it would have you think it’s for the good of the whole (because who would want an evil felon choosing lawmakers?), felon disenfranchisement laws are leftover from the period known as Reconstruction and were instated as a way for states to keep blacks from voting.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's New Zealand visit“These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive,” said Holder in a speech at Georgetown University Law Center. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

As the Washington Post reports, Holder’s request is part of a larger movement by the Justice Department under the Obama Administration to “overhaul” the justice system—something they promised in 2008 and again in 2012 on the campaign trail.

Close to 6 million Americans are unable to vote because of their criminal history. An overwhelming majority of these people have served their time and are no longer under any supervision of the courts. In other words: they’ve paid their dues.

Thirty-eight percent of disenfranchised felons are African American, despite representing less than 13 percent of the nation’s population as a whole.

There is no doubt the criminal justice system as we know it—from arrests to sentencing—has race-specific outcomes if not racist intentions. Felon disenfranchisement is one example of this, a “poll tax” to keep Blacks from voting, according to Michelle Alexander of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

“During the Jim Crow era, poll taxes and literacy tests kept the African-Americans from polls,” explained Alexander in an interview with Kathleen Wells. “But today, felon disenfranchisement laws accomplished what poll taxes and literacy tests ultimately could not, because those laws were struck down. But, felony disenfranchisement laws had been allowed to stand. And in some major American cities, more than half of working-age African-American men have criminal records and are thus, subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”

As Holder said, not being able to vote—like not being able to find a job or a good home—is one obstacle that can push felons back into a life of crime. And particularly when their sentence has been served, taking away this right is simply overkill.

Since 1997, 23 states have overhauled their laws in regards to felon disenfranchisement, giving those who have paid their dues a method of restoring their rights. But 11 states still restrict voting rights. In Florida, an alarming 10 percent of the population is disenfranchised.

Holder doesn’t have the power to change state laws, but he does have influence, and as he calls for felon voting restrictions to be repealed, we can only hope it will lead to an electorate truly representative of the people of this country.

About David Matson