Out Of Jail, On The Rolls

Voting is a fundamental right, not a privilege for the virtuous. And yet 10 states permanently restrict the voting rights of some or all felons, and 25 more deny the franchise to those out on parole, according to a compelling new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. While these measures might satisfy a desire to punish law-breakers, they also add to the alienation of ex-cons -- and are therefore likely to hurt rather than help public safety.

The voting rights of ex-felons are -- bizarrely -- decided on a state by state basis. Until a ballot question tightened the rules eight years ago, Massachusetts allowed incarcerated prisoners to vote. Even now, the Commonwealth restores prisoners' right to vote upon their release -- a practice that the Brennan Center urges more restrictive states to adopt. The center is also touting federal legislation that would guarantee 4 million released prisoners the right to vote at least in federal elections.

Bans on voting by ex-cons bespeak a kind of paranoia -- as if politically astute criminals would take control of the government and repeal all the laws. In fact, ex-cons are likely to be disconnected from politics and economic life. Their disenfranchisement also dampens the voting power of African-Americans and other minority communities with high incarceration rates.

The long-term disenfranchisement of ex-cons creates opportunities for mischief. In 2000, Florida denied the vote to innocent people with names similar to those in a national database of felons.

But there are more hopeful signs. In 2006 Rhode Island voted to restore the franchise to prisoners upon their release, and the report points to reforms in Iowa, Maryland, and even Florida. Legislators and voters are realizing that most prisoners eventually get out, and need to find a place in society. Restoring their right to vote can only help.