- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

Should convicted murderers be allowed to vote? If the federal Count Every Vote Act of 2005 passes, they will be. The bill —sponsored by Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, Barbara Mikulski and others —would mandate felon voting across the country, regardless of state law. The bill shows that Democrats are more interested in the potential voting bloc than what the Constitution allows or what Americans actually want.

The senators wrote the law in denial of some basic legal facts. Most prominently, the 14th Amendment makes felon voting a state prerogative, not a federal one. It guarantees as much by allowing states to disenfranchise citizens guilty of “participation in rebellion, or other crime.” The Supreme Court confirmed this position in November, when it declined to hear two felon-voting cases from New York and Washington state. The senators’ bill, by contrast, tosses out the Constitution and declares in no uncertain terms that felon voting should be a federal issue. “The right of an individual who is a citizen of the United States to vote in any election for Federal office shall not be denied or abridged because that individual has been convicted of a criminal offense,” it baldly declares, excepting current inmates and parolees.

Sometimes Washington gets it way by threatening to take away federal money; this isn’t one of those instances. The senators simply thumb their noses at states’ rights and declare that Congress’ view wins.

Americans don’t seem to want to restore felons’ voting rights. Polls suggest that Americans are open to restoring the right to vote to some offenders, at least in principle, but they don’t do much about it. According to sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, four in five Americans support giving the vote to felons after completing parole — though the number falls with the severity of the crime. Indeed, 48 states still restrict felons from voting: eight bar felons from voting for life; and 33 deny it for parolees. It’s not as though the issue splits evenly along liberal-conservative lines, either: In 2000, Massachusetts voters approved a constitutional amendment barring inmates from voting.

If Congress passes the bill, Democratic electoral gains would be an estimated 1.2 million new voters, according to research by Messrs. Manza and Uggen with Marcus Britton. A windfall like that would have yielded Al Gore the presidency in 2000.

If voters choose to change state laws regarding felons and voting, it’s their prerogative. Federalism allows for such state-level experimentation, and it’s at the state level where the consequences of new felon-voting laws will best be judged. Congress should let the process play itself out, as the Constitution allows it to.

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