`Pal Bob' offers retort on rights of felons

March 25, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Oh, you've got to hand it to A. Robert Kaufman. He says what's on his mind, doesn't care who likes it and lets the chips fall where they may.

And he's honest. Kaufman, Baltimore's perennial Trotskyist candidate for just about everything, doesn't flinch when it comes to telling you what he really believes.

Kaufman has long been an advocate for restoring voting rights to felons. Which is he why he dashed off a testy letter to the editor about my column on felon voting rights, which ran a week ago today.

"They probably won't print it," Kaufman groused yesterday in a voice-mail message.

Never fear, Comrade Kaufman. Your views will be given ample space in this column. I figure I owe it to you, for your years of being in the forefront of the struggle for civil and human rights long before those causes were popular.

Besides, sometimes a conservative's got to have a good Trotskyist's back.

As I said, Kaufman's honest. He e-mailed me his letter yesterday. (This is a "Danger, Will Robinson!" moment for Marylanders. Kaufman now has access to e-mail and the Internet!) He ended it on a note of total candor.

"Incidentally," Kaufman wrote, "I agree with Brother Greg in his wanting to abolish the Electoral College and U.S. Senate because they are `clearly undemocratic.'"

Candid, but not exactly true. I said if we wanted to be a true democracy, that's what we should do. But I don't want a true democracy. I want a republic, a government defined by Webster's New World Dictionary as "a political order in which the supreme power is held by a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them."

That's different from a democracy, which the same dictionary defines as "government exercised either directly by the people or through elected representatives."

The key difference between the two is a phrase in the definition of republic: "supreme power is held by a body of citizens who are entitled to vote." In a republic, not everyone is entitled to vote, which is why we haven't extended the franchise to 6-year-olds. But don't worry. I'm sure the lefties are working on that last one.

Kaufman also believes the voting age should be lowered. Not to 6-year-olds, but to 16-year-olds. Now back to his felon disenfranchisement letter.

"Well, Greg," Kaufman, who calls me "Greg," said near the top of his letter, "I can't speak for those who have been pushing incrementally for the right of ex-felons to vote, but I certainly support the right of all Americans to have unlimited access to the ballot."

Interesting term, "ex-felon." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines felon as "one who has committed a felony." An ex-felon, by logical extension, would be "one who has committed an ex-felony."

But back to my pal Bob. (I call Kaufman "Bob.")

"After the disgraceful abandonment of the unity of Black & White working people which ended Reconstruction, racist whites instituted all manner of openly racist laws to limit the black vote (and, along with it, the vote of poor whites). The poll tax, the grandfather clause, the literacy tests, quizzes to explain the Constitution to the satisfaction of sometimes illiterate whites, physical intimidation and lynchings have all been successfully fought by (various) anti-discrimination groups.

"However, few citizens know (including presumably Citizen Kane) that one of the most indefensible laws passed to deny the vote to blacks (and poor whites) were the anti-felon laws passed in most, if not all, of the ex-slave states."

Actually, Bob, I do know. I just don't see how poll taxes (now banned by constitutional amendment), literacy tests and grandfather clauses compare to Maryland's old felon disenfranchisement law, which applied to two-time felons of all races who could be re-enfranchised by getting a gubernatorial pardon. I don't see how it compares to the new law either, which restores felon voting rights after three years.

And the 14th Amendment, passed by a Reconstruction Congress of radical Republicans that included the likes of Rep. Thaddeus Stevens and Sen. Charles Sumner - the A. Robert Kaufmans of their time - included a clause allowing felon disenfranchisement. Advocacy of felon disenfranchisement is not the exclusive province of white racists.

"That doesn't mitigate qualitatively what I had to say," Kaufman told me on the phone yesterday after I told him about the 14th Amendment's felon disenfranchisement clause.

Somehow I didn't expect it would. The guy believes what he believes. And what he believes came near the end of his e-mail.

"If prisoners could vote," Kaufman wrote, "politicians would pay more attention to those societal institutions which create so many felons, and the prisons would be less corrupt and violent. That, in fact, is the way it is throughout most (if not all) of Western Europe."


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