Felon Voting Rights on the Small Screen

Posted By: Courtney Mills

Post Date: Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The primary season recently brought an onslaught of television commercials to the DC television market. The Maryland and DC primaries allowed those of us in Virginia to view some of the television ads which we had been spared in light of the less than full presidential primary ballots for our own election. One ad that recently aired stood out to me, as it focused on an often overlooked area of election law.

The ad, known as “Votes” was released by Restore Our Future, a pro-Mitt Romney PAC, and addressed Rick Santorum’s vote to allow felons to vote after they had completed their prison sentences and parole. The ad aligns Santorum with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and presumes that voting to allow felons to exercise the right to vote is a bad thing, akin with voting for the now infamous “bridge to nowhere.” The issue was raised during a Republican Primary debate in South Carolina in January, but with ads airing as recently as last week it appears that the issue is far from done.

While not as hot of a topic as voter ID, felon voting rights are also important and deserve more attention. The voting status of felons varies by state, with some, such as Massachusetts allowing immediate restoration of voting privileges upon release from imprisonment and others, such as Virginia, requiring a petition for restoration of voting rights.

Some politicians, such as Republican Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, have worked to speed up the process of felon voting restoration. McDonnell shortened the mandated waiting period before a non-violent felon may apply for their voting rights from three years to two, and outpaced both of his Democratic predecessors in restoring voting rights. McDonnell sited his belief in second chances and stated that “people ought to have the ability to be reintegrated into society after they have served time that may have been imposed and otherwise paid all of their debts to society.”

Others have moved their states in the opposite direction. Florida Governor Rick Scott, also a Republican, recently extended the required waiting period for all felons who now must universally wait five years before applying to have their rights restored, regardless of the nature of their crime. Some violent offenders must wait seven years.

The Florida Parole Commission released a report which showed that while the normal re-offense rate in the state is 33 percent, of those whose civil rights were restored, only 11 percent ended up in custody again.  Al Jazeera recently posted a compelling video which details some of the election law changes in Florida, including the extended wait period for felons. Governor Scott was confronted with these facts regarding the lower re-arrest rate of those whose civil rights were restored, yet he only stated “fairness” as his reason for amending the law.

For those who have served their time, the right to vote is essential to reintegrating into society. Studies have shown that restoration of rights can lead to less repeat offenses. Governor McDonnell has proved that felon voting rights is not a partisan issue and should be viewed as an opportunity to reintegrate citizens and offer a second chance to be a productive part of society. Those who use felons’ rights as a divisive political issue should look at the true impact of these laws on those who want to become engaged in their community despite their past transgressions.  We should all work towards getting more citizens to the polls, not keeping those away who want to vote.