- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

Felon voting is still a state issue, and for most of the country, its time still hasn’t come. That’s what we see in the Supreme Court’s recent decision to decline two felon-voting cases, the plaintiffs in which want the land’s highest court to force Washington state, New York and 46 other states to give felons, even murderers, the vote.

Lost in the contentious debates over felon-voter laws’ roles in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections was the fact that most states have restricted the voting rights of felons for most of our history (indeed, two-thirds had the laws before the Civil War, and Europe’s laws on the matter historically were even stricter). Eight states bar felons from voting for life. Maine and Vermont are the two exceptions: Both go so far as to allow the few felons they have to vote from their cells. But these laws would be deeply unpopular elsewhere in the country. Even in nearby Massachusetts, no stranger to progressivism, voters in 2000 supported a constitutional amendment to bar inmates from voting. The reason is clear: Most people think perpetrators of serious crimes have violated the public trust and cannot be permitted to help determine the future of the communities they harmed.

Despite this, variance in the law exists from state to state. Some states choose a middle ground between Maine and, say, Florida — which disenfranchises all felons for life — by barring only current inmates or those on parole from the vote.

In the past, federal authorities have deferred to the states on the issue. Once it became clear felon voting was destined to fail in the court of public opinion, advocates turned to both federal authorities and to the court of law. Even here, they’ve been disappointed. In the New York case, the plaintiff was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence. The voting case was thrown out by the federal district court in Syracuse and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in Manhattan. In the Washington state case, a group of convicted felons challenged the state constitution, which contains provisions against felon voting. This, too, was thrown out by a federal court, this time in Seattle. The 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco sent the case back to Seattle for further review. But at this point the state appealed to the Supreme Court, which disappointed advocates by declining the case last week.

A federal court may yet send the issue up to the Supreme Court, and the justices may yet opt to hear a case. But for the time being, the voters’ good sense about the possible scenarios — the advent of new constituencies of prisoners whom politicians court for votes, for instance — still prevails. As does the sense that most of the time, in most of the country, serious lawbreakers should not help elect the country’s lawmakers. We’re pleased to see the courts still agree that that should be the case.

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