Even after paying their debt to society, millions of Americans who have been imprisoned for committing a crime remain unable to exercise the most fundamental right of citizens in a democracy. State laws that bar felons from voting after their release — in some cases for the rest of their lives — undermine their efforts to rehabilitate themselves as productive members of society and disproportionately affect minorities, who make up more than a third of the nearly 6 million people affected by such laws. No other industrialized democracy allows the mass disenfranchisement of its citizens on such a scale.
That is why U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called last week for the repeal of laws that ban felons from voting after they have served their sentences, which he described as a throwback to the racist policies of the South after the Civil War aimed at denying African-Americans access to the ballot. Mr. Holder told a conference in Washington Tuesday that in light of the injustices perpetuated against minority voters, he considers reform of this shameful aspect of the criminal justice system the preeminent civil rights issue of our time.
There is no rational justification for continuing to punish people in perpetuity after they have served their time, and there's evidence that it can even be counterproductive for felons trying to re-enter society. One parole commission study in Florida found that released prisoners who were banned from voting were three times more likely to commit another crime than those who were allowed to vote. The stigma attached to being barred from voting affects ex-felons' every effort to turn their lives around, find gainful employment, raise families and contribute to their communities.
There's also evidence that disenfranchising large numbers of people affects the outcome of elections. In the 2000 presidential race, George W. Bush won Florida, the state that tipped the election, by fewer than 600 votes. But more than 800,000 Floridians — a number equivalent to almost 10 percent of the state's registered voters at the time — were prohibited from casting ballots because of the ban on felons voting. Two years later researchers at the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University concluded that the results of the election "almost certainly would have been reversed" if felons had been allowed to vote.
Nor is there any question that laws prohibiting felons from voting disproportionately affect minority citizens. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but more than a third of all people barred from voting because of a felony conviction. Hispanics are 15 percent of the population but represent 20 percent of those disenfranchised by such laws. Studies have shown that as many as 10 percent of the population in some minority communities is barred from voting as a result of felony disenfranchisement laws.
Such blatant disparities are unfair and an unconscionable stain on the American ideal of equal representation in a democracy. Moreover, the fact that the states that have embraced such laws are mostly clustered among those of the old Confederacy should be a red flag for the courts that not enough has changed there since the Jim Crow era, when state officials used literacy tests, poll taxes and other subterfuges as an excuse to deny minorities the right to vote.
Mr. Holder doesn't have the authority on his own to strike down state laws that clearly discriminate against minority voters, but he can add his voice to those calling on Congress and state lawmakers to reform an unjust system. Opposing laws that deny minorities' voting rights is of a piece with the attorney general's recent push back against other elements of the justice system that, while appearing to be colorblind, disproportionately penalize African-Americans and other people of color. Among them are mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, the huge differential in punishments for possessing powder and crack cocaine and attempts by states like North Carolina and Texas to impose voter ID laws that have the effect of preventing minorities and the poor from voting.