Do we really want to see felons voting from prison?

March 18, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

You knew they'd be back, didn't you?

I knew it. I knew it before they knew it.

"They" are the folks for whom restoring voting rights to felons has become not only a passion, not just a mission, but darn near a mania. Three years ago, they persuaded like-minded state legislators to pass a bill that would restore voting rights to felons three years after leaving prison. But that wasn't good enough.

So they're back again this year, proposing another bill that would restore voting rights to felons as soon as they leave prison. Why don't these folks - members and nonmembers of the legislature - just cut to the chase?

Propose a bill now that seeks what they really want: for felons to be allowed to vote while they're still in prison. Then they can move on to their ultimate goal: a bill that would end incarceration as a punishment.

Can I prove that? No. Maybe I'm just a little testy because those of us who are leery of restoring voting rights to felons are always having our judgment questioned.

When this issue arose in 2002, I had one man ask me if I really believed that felons shouldn't be allowed to vote.

"I really believe it's not my problem," I answered. But you get the gist of his question, don't you? By daring to believe that the system the state of Maryland had in place before 2002 was correct, I was suggesting there was something wrong with me.

Hey, how about questioning the judgment of the folks who've committed two felonies for a change?

Before 2002, that's just how you became disenfranchised in Maryland: by committing two felonies. There was also a process whereby felons could restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis, by petitioning the governor and asking for a pardon.

There was a certain logic to this process that those advocating unrestricted felon voting rights clearly have no use for: It distinguished the felon who was truly rehabilitated, reformed and prepared to be a responsible member of society again from the one who was prepared only to resume a criminal lifestyle. It wasn't - and shouldn't have been - a one-size-fits-all solution.

The proposed felon voting rights legislation is a one-size-fits-all solution for a situation that is anything but one size. Do we really want, for example, the guys who were in the Stop Snitching DVD to leave prison and vote in a tight race for Baltimore state's attorney that pits a candidate who wants to keep witness intimidation a felony against one who wants to make it a misdemeanor?

I sure don't. Those who favor unlimited voting rights for felons need to explain why they do.

And they need better arguments than the ones they've managed to dredge up. The most laughable is that denying the vote to felons isn't democratic. There's a reason for that: The United States isn't a democracy.

This country is a republic. That's why Article IV, Section 4, of the U.S. Constitution says the federal government must guarantee to every state a republican form of government, not a democratic one.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the "it's not democratic" argument would mean we'd have to discard much of our Constitution and federal institutions. The purest form of democracy at the federal level is the House of Representatives. Members are elected by popular vote. States with the largest populations have the most representatives.

But the U.S. Senate isn't "democratic." States with low populations have the same number of Senate votes as states with large populations.

The Electoral College clearly isn't "democratic," which is why some have called for its abolition. But why not get rid of that undemocratic U.S. Senate as well? While we're at it, we can chuck Amendments 11 through 27. All were passed after being ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the members of that undemocratic Senate.

In fact, the first 10 amendments of the Constitution - our revered Bill of Rights - aren't really democratic either. They came to us from a republican government. So let's deep-six our Bill of Rights as well. Call a new constitutional convention where the voting rights of felons are explicitly enumerated. (As it now stands, the 14th Amendment clearly says states have the right to disenfranchise felons.)

When they're not beating us over our heads with the "it's undemocratic" argument, advocates of unrestricted voting rights for felons hit us with another one: Felons pay taxes, so they should vote. But it's not the taxes felons pay that should concern us.

It's the taxes law-abiding citizens pay for the police who arrested them that matter. And the taxes we pay if they need a public defender. And the taxes for prosecutors and other court costs. And the taxes for their room, board and health care while they are incarcerated. And the taxes we pay for the corrections officers who keep them in line, and all other prison personnel.

Let's tally all those taxes and have felons pay us back. Then we can talk about giving them unrestricted voting rights.

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