The New York Times
January 10, 2006
In his few remaining days in office, Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia has an opportunity to strike a blow for democracy with the stroke of a pen by restoring the right to vote to more than 240,000 felons who are now out of prison. This is manifestly the right thing to do. Mr. Warner, who is likely to be a presidential candidate in 2008, should not let political considerations deter him because taking a principled stand in favor of ex-prisoners' voting rights would only augment his reputation.
Virginia has one of the nation's most punitive felony disenfranchisement laws. Felons must wait for years after their release from prison to apply for restoration of their voting rights, and the government must decide on each petition individually, case by case. This is in sharp contrast with the many states that automatically restore felons' voting rights when they are out of prison. Even Texas and Georgia restore felons' voting rights automatically when they have completed probation and parole.
There is no good reason to deny these Americans the vote, and many reasons not to. Democracy is rule by the consent of the governed. It diminishes American democracy to not allow people who have paid their debt to society to help select their leaders. It also detracts from the former prisoners' prospects for rehabilitation to insist that they are unworthy to vote.
It is impossible to think about felony disenfranchisement, particularly in Virginia, without thinking about race. African-Americans are far more likely than whites to have their votes taken away by these laws. In Virginia, African-Americans make up 20 percent of the population, but they account for 52 percent of those disenfranchised because of felony convictions.
Governor Warner may have his mind on the presidential race as he considers how to proceed. No politician wants to appear "pro-criminal." But most Americans see felony re-enfranchisement as an issue of rehabilitation and democracy. In a 2002 Harris poll, 80 percent of those surveyed supported restoring voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences. Voters in Democratic presidential primaries no doubt favor that idea even more. When Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa signed an order last year restoring the vote to ex-felons, he improved his national standing. The public interest and Mr. Warner's political interests both argue in favor of giving Virginia's ex-prisoners full citizenship.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company
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