Santorum defends support for restoring felons’ voting rights

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Rick Santorum pushed back Monday morning against a series of ads being run against him on his record on earmarks, labor issues and a vote he took in 2002 that would have forced states to let felons’ voting rights be restored when they completed their sentences.

Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, is demanding the felon charge be stricken from an ad being run by a political group backing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one of his opponents in the Republican presidential primary.

The ad says Mr. Santorum voted to “let convicted felons vote” — something the senator says is “explicitly false” because it implies, though it never says, that he wanted felons to be able to vote from jail.

The vote Mr. Santorum cast, Senate vote No. 31 in 2002, would have overridden state laws when it comes to federal elections. It would have required them to let felons register to vote once they have completed their prison sentences and any probation or parole.

If it were to pass today, it would override laws in 11 states that require felons to apply to have their rights restored, and that puts it at odds with the principles most of the GOP’s candidates are espousing on the campaign trail that states should be left to control their own destinies as much as possible.

Mr. Santorum was one of only three Republican senators to vote for the amendment. The others argued it trampled on states’ rights, said there was no pressing need for federal action in this area, and said it would create a nightmare for states that would have had to come up with different systems for federal and state elections.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Mr. Santorum defended the vote, saying it was allowed by the Constitution because it was limited.

“Yes, but it has to do with federal elections,” Mr. Santorum said.

The amendment failed by a wide margin, winning only about half of Democrats’ votes in the chamber as well as Mr. Santorum and the two other Republicans: Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who fled the GOP in 2009 to become a Democrat.

Interestingly, Mr. Romney’s own state of Massachusetts is actually more liberal than the federal standard Mr. Santorum voted for. According to the Brennan Center, Massachusetts automatically restores felons’ voting rights once they are released from prison, so they can vote even if they are on parole or probation.

Mr. Santorum said that makes Mr. Romney’s own record on the issue worse.

The ad is being run by a super PAC backing Mr. Romney, but under federal campaign laws it does not have any coordination with the Romney campaign.

On the other charges, Mr. Santorum defended his past practice of requesting earmarks and said his opponents in the race, including Mr. Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, had their states request earmarks.

And he defended his pro-labor votes, saying that, as senator from Pennsylvania, it was his duty to his constituents, but he said he would take a different position as president because he didn’t believe in Washington forcing those views on right-to-work states.

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