By Alyse Shorland, CNN
(CNN) – At Monday’s Republican debate in South Carolina, candidates sparred over whether people with felony convictions should be allowed to vote.
Former Senator Rick Santorum said he supports felons regaining the right to vote after they’ve completed their sentences, and noted that felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects black voters.
“This is a huge deal in the African-American community, because we have very high rates of incarceration, particularly with drug crimes,” he said.
Mitt Romney said as governor of Massachusetts, he disagreed: “I think people who committed violent crimes should not be allowed to vote again.”
Voting rights advocates say the argument could come up more often in the near future - with 2.3 million people currently incarcerated, states are rethinking whether the court’s punishment is enough, or if people who’ve committed felonies will continue to pay for their crimes through disenfranchisement.
Twenty-three states have eased felon voting restrictions since 1997, but in 2011, Florida and Iowa tightened them. Maine and Vermont are the only states with no disenfranchisement for people with criminal convictions.
“It’s really the first time in a while we have seen significant opposition against restoring rights,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based organization that works for criminal justice reform and advocates for voting rights.
Felony disenfranchisement laws date back to the founding of the United States, when legislation restricted people with criminal convictions from voting. Today, laws vary from state to state, but in Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia and Florida, people with a felony conviction are permanently barred from voting, although the right can be restored through a pardon or a rights restoration process.
States' decisions about who is eligible to vote can have national implications. In the 2000 election, Florida was decided by just 537 votes. In that state, almost 950,000 people are disenfranchised because of felony convictions.
And in a nation where every vote counts, disenfranchisement disproportionately affects black voters. Nationally, 5.3 million people are disenfranchised because of felony convictions and about 38% are African-American, according to Sentencing Project. African-Americans make up only 12.6% of the U.S. population. The American Civil Liberties Union said the largest share of disenfranchised voters is in Florida, where nearly one out of every five black men overall is ineligible to vote.
Mauer said voting rights and limitations have historically been tied to race.
“At the same time states were adopting poll taxes, they were also tailoring disenfranchisement laws with the intent of disenfranchising black male voters,” he said, adding that disenfranchisement was tied to certain crimes people then believed black men were more likely to commit.
But Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank devoted to issues of race, said it’s a matter of criminal justice, not race. It shouldn’t be a topic of discussion at a national level, but should remain a state issue, he said.
“I think that (Santorum) is wrong to want to favor automatic restoration of voting rights to people just because they have served their sentence,” he said. “Reason one being if you don’t follow the law, you don’t have the right to make the law, and when you vote that’s what you’re doing. You’re always making it, at least indirectly, because you are choosing lawmakers.”
Although Clegg doesn’t favor automatic restoration of voting rights, he said states could consider it case-by-case basis.
“We don’t let everybody vote,” he said. “We don’t let children, noncitizens, mentally incompetent vote, we don’t let people who commit serious crimes vote. And the reason is there are a certain minimum objectives of responsibility and loyalty and trustworthiness we demand of people if they are going to participate in self-governance. And people who have committed crimes don’t pass that test.”
Mauer said judging who is fit to vote is a slippery slope, and restricting voting based on felony convictions is the equivalent to a character test.
“In a democracy it’s a very messy situation so we don’t normally invoke character tests or loyalty tests,” he said. “If my next door neighbor beats his kid, I might try and get him help but he has as much right to vote as I do. It’s a very slippery slope to invoke something like character tests.”
What do you think? Should people who committed felonies be allowed to vote after serving their sentences?
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