Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday that the states should let felons vote after they have served their sentences — a move that would disproportionately expand the number of minority voters and thus help the Democratic Party in elections.
“It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision,” Mr. Holder said in a speech at Georgetown University.
Not allowing felons to vote after they have been punished for their crimes makes it harder for them to reintegrate into society and may lead to further criminal action, he said.
“These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive,” Mr. Holder said. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”
The Justice Department cannot force states to change their voting laws, but Mr. Holder hopes to use his clout as the nation’s top law enforcer to persuade them. Laws barring felons from voting disproportionately affects the black and Hispanic populations, as the majority of inmates are minorities.
The Justice Department said an estimated 5.8 million Americans are not allowed to vote because of current or previous felony convictions, and of those, 38 percent are black.
“At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past — a time of post-Civil War repression,” Mr. Holder said. “They have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus and fear.”
Democrats would benefit politically if disenfranchised felons were allowed to vote, as the majority of them identify with that party, according to a 2002 study conducted by Northwestern University.
The hotly contested presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 “would almost certainly have been reversed” had felons been allowed to vote, according to the study. In Florida, the state that decided the election for Mr. Bush, 10 percent of the population is ineligible to vote because of its ban on convicts, Mr. Holder noted in his speech.
Almost every state bars prison inmates from casting ballots while serving time. Four states — Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — prohibit ex-felons from voting for life unless they receive pardons from the governor. The rest of the states have voting restrictions for ex-felons that range from waiting periods from the time they get out of prison to making them go through a re-registration process.
In an article released by The New Yorker magazine, Mr. Holder says that restoring and expanding voting rights is one of his top priorities as attorney general. In an interview with Jeff Toobin in the magazine’s Feb. 17 edition, Mr. Holder also suggests that he may step down this year. But the Justice Department has said Mr. Holder has no immediate plans to resign.
“The most the attorney general has said is that he still has a lot he wants to accomplish on issues like criminal justice reform, voting rights and LGBT equality,” said Justice spokesman Brian Fallon. “He did not speak about his plans any further than that.”