Sotomayor and Felon Disenfranchisement

Ian Milhiser’s explanation of the issues and distortions in play regarding Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in a case about the voting rights of felons is excellent. It’s also an excellent example of how hollow conservative rhetoric about the judiciary is. As he explains, here’s how conservatives want to understand the application of the Voting Rights Act to the question of felon disenfranchisement:

In a case called Chisom v. Roemer, the Supreme Court held that a state law violates the Voting Rights Act even if it unintentionally causes people to lose their right to vote on account their skin color. So if New York actually does systematically disenfranchise minorities by overincarcerating them, the Voting Rights Act forbids New York from continuing this practice.

Nevertheless, a majority of the court held that felony disenfranchisement laws are immune to scrutiny under the Act. Essentially, the court said that Congress did not really mean it when it enacted a law providing that “no voting qualification” may discriminate.

As Ian observers, suddenly conservative reverence for the text goes out the window the moment strict adherence to the text would produce a progressive result.


Meanwhile, legal issues aside, as a policy felony disenfranchisement laws are a terrible thing. They’re not a meaningful deterrent to crime, but they are a lasting stigma on ex-offenders and a barrier to their reintegration into society. What’s more, they serve to further politically disempower the disproportionately poor, disproportionately minority communities in which convicted felons are typically found. There’s no good reason for this policy, but upholding it serves the dual goals of “tough on crime” posturing and advancing conservative political power, so it’s extremely difficult to get rid of.