In the United States, some 5.8 million Americans can’t vote because they have a current or previous felony conviction — more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states. That figure includes one in 13 African American adults. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, one in five African Americans are barred by these felon disenfranchisement policies, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.
Citing these figures and many others, Holder called out state laws that block ex-felons from voting as a vestige of Reconstruction-era voter suppression, and called for for states to repeal every law that prohibits those who have completed their sentence from voting. Holder’s address Tuesday morning at a criminal justice reform symposium is the latest in his “Smart on Crime” initiative that has included scaled back prosecution of crimes with mandatory minimum sentences, less targeting of those complying with state marijuana laws, diversion out of prison and improvement of offender re-entry, and a move to cut short the sentences of some drug offenders.
Holder does not have the power to reform these state voting laws himself. In fact, when asked what he would do to advance this policy, he said “I think a lot of this has to be done at the state level,” and offered that his Department of Justice would work with legislators. But Holder also said he aims to “generate a conversation,” and to that end, issued a strong statement Tuesday that “[t]hese laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed. And so today, I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across the country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.”
He noted that these laws are part of a U.S. history of discriminatory voter suppression “too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.” After Reconstruction, when Southern states were passing felon disenfranchisement measures just as slaves were being freed, 90 percent of the Southern prison population was black, Holder said.
In Florida — one of 11 states that continue to restrict voting rights even after a person has completed probation or other terms of a sentence — ten percent of the state’s population is disenfranchised by felony voting policies. “[A]lthough well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable,” he said. It is states that impose felon voting restrictions, but federal bills have also been floated that would restore voting rights at least in federal elections.
Holder cited a recent study by a Florida parole commission that found those who had their voting rights restored after completing their sentence were a three times less likely to end up back in the criminal justice system. “Unfortunately, the re-enfranchisement policy that contributed to this stunning result has been inexplicably and unwisely rolled back since that study was completed,” Holder said, pointing out that other states have also since revived barriers to voting. “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive. … They undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies.”
Holder delivered his remarks at a symposium during which Republican Sens. Mike Lee (UT) and Rand Paul (KY) also called for criminal justice reform on enfranchisement, and touted bipartisan bills they each sponsored to reform mandatory minimum reform, supported by the Obama administration.
In response to Holder’s remarks today, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) said he is willing to consider restoring some rights to ex-felons, the Associated Press reports. Alabama is one of 11 states that maintain barriers to voting even after an individual has completed all the terms of his or her sentence. The law currently requires individuals who have been barred from voting to apply to the state parole board for either a pardon or voter right restoration, depending on the crime. The author of Alabama’s felon disenfranchisement law passed after Reconstruction “estimated the crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify sixty percent of the Negroes,” according to the Sentencing Project.