All the fuss about Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe trying to restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences is just fuss, nothing more. To be sure, it appears at first glance that the chief executive of the Old Dominion is really concerned about civil rights for the downtrodden. The reality is that having won as a Democrat in a traditionally Republican state, Mr. McAuliffe knows that every vote will matter in the November elections and restoring up to 200,000 felons could give the edge to Democratic hopeful and close friend, Hillary Clinton.
But the fuss — including the opposition from state Republicans who cry foul — ignores history and political reality. First is the past: States traditionally set the voting rules for felons serving time and those released. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, permit felons to vote from prison. It’s a luxury of these two states afforded no other American voter because the felons get the ballots right in their cells. They don’t even have to apply for an absentee ballot. Only 14 states permit felons to vote after they are released. The rest have parole or probation requirements. But the bottom line is clear. The legal challenges to this varied set of requirements are virtually nonexistent.
And for good reason. Recall the definition of a felony: “A serious crime, characterized under federal law and many state statutes, as any offense punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year.” Need we be reminded, too, of some actual felonies. Rape, murder, arson, burglary, manslaughter and kidnapping. In the hierarchy of man’s offensives against man, a felony is at the top. Many of these crimes, quite rightfully, are difficult for their victims to forget.
Equally important is the political reality of making a fuss about votes for felons. It doesn’t take a doctorate in criminology to understand that felons are quite different from the typical American who votes. Scholarly studies agree that felons are typically males, minorities, uneducated, young and unmarried. Many are illiterate. Chances are very good that many never voted before their incarceration To be sure, their education — again, obvious, even without a doctorate in psychology — is derived from dealing with government. Perhaps no individual is more attuned to working with the governmental system than a felon who deals with their representatives on a daily basis, such as prison guards. Quite naturally, they often garner a distrust of that government in particular and governance in general, which would include dealing with government even in a seemingly innocuous procedure for most Americans such as voting.
In actuality, enfranchised felons don’t vote. In one major study in Erie County, N.Y., only about 5 percent turned out to vote in the election of 2004. Other data suggest similar results, including some from Rhode Island, which engaged in an intense campaign to register felons on their release.
Finally, the same negative factors that affect felons affect voters in general, namely, the absence of pressure to vote. The United States has no paternalistic voter registration system. In Britain, election officials are responsible for going out into the land to keep voting lists up to date. In France registration is compulsory, and Australia imposes a fine on non-voters. Moreover, Americans are fiddle-footed, moving more frequently than the citizens of most nations.
If Gov. McAuliffe is truly concerned about voting rights, he ought to focus more on lawful Virginians exercising their right. When I tried to vote for the first time after establishing residency again in Virginia recently. I found the ordeal just awful. It was primary election day, March 1, and I moseyed to the polling place, Westgate Elementary School in McLean, only to find that the two front doors to the school were locked. No signs of an entry door were seen, and only after I took a nice walk around the entire school did I find a side door open.
What might I call that, Governor?
Maybe a voter lockdown?
• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.