Voting rights

November 30, 2005

JACK KEMP, the former housing secretary and onetime Republican vice presidential candidate, raised eyebrows last month when he urged Congressional lawmakers to require states to restore voting privileges to former felons, an issue not traditionally supported by Republicans.

Though Mr. Kemp got a mixed reaction from a House committee considering reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, his idea is broadly supported in black communities with large numbers of men who have completed prison sentences yet are disenfranchised by state prohibitions. Mr. Kemp's remarks come at a time when his party has been assiduously courting black voters and attempting to recast itself as inclusive and sensitive to their concerns. The disenfranchisement issue is the Republican Party's opportunity to prove this.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have urged President Bush to endorse this issue, but legislation in the House that would prevent former felons from being barred from voting has been stuck in committee since May.

Many blacks believe Republicans oppose voting rights for ex-felons because felons would likely vote Democratic, a perception reinforced by the widely publicized purging of 94,000 people classified as felons from voter-registration lists in Florida during the hotly contested 2000 presidential elections. The majority of those culled were blacks and Hispanics who had no criminal convictions.

By moving beyond its standard rhetoric to black audiences - "If you give us a chance, we'll give you a choice" - and actually supporting an issue important to them, the Republican Party could gain credibility with black voters.

Nationally, 4.7 million ex-felons, more than a quarter of them black men, are barred from voting under various state laws. In Maryland, where between 150,000 and 200,000 ex-felons can't vote, the law is complicated and confusing. State lawmakers restored voting rights to some felons in 2002, but it is still difficult to determine who is banned and for how long.

A uniform federal law granting the vote to former felons would help marginalized ex-felons become fully participating members of society and convince black constituencies that some of their concerns are being heard.

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