Attorney General Eric Holder was diplomatic when he said that the time to end the full or partial bans in all but two states on ex-felons voting has long passed. The bans are little short of medieval and disgraceful at best and at worst. The states that keep the bans on their books give real meaning to the term second-class citizenship for the millions of ex-felons who are barred from the polls or must go through tortuous loops to get their voting right restored. To no surprise, the disproportionate number of these felons is African Americans and Holder said so.
What Holder didn't say is that these are the men and women who in decades past were victims of racist poll taxes, literacy laws, and political gerrymandering. They were driven from the voting booths by physical harassment, threats and intimidation by bigoted sheriffs and voter registrars. As heinous and deplorable as that was, it at least made some perverse sense only because blatant Jim Crow racist vote disenfranchisement had a clear political intent and that was to preserve white political power in and outside the South. That intent almost certainly was still very much a factor in the political calculus of the GOP in the immediate decades after the collapse of legal segregation. Studies showed that the majority of the ex-felons if allowed to vote would overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Those votes could easily have made the difference for Democratic candidates in close state and national elections in some states.
That calculus seems to have been scrapped by more and more Republicans, including ultra-conservatives, who now say the bans should be modified are tossed. The apparent sea change is due in part to the worry of many Republicans over the outlandish, and bloated costs of keeping tens of thousands of mostly non-violent felons warehoused in jails and prisons and in part over a sense that felon voting bans make a terrible mockery of the paper American admonition that once a felon pays their debt to society they are entitled to a second chance. It's a matter of simple fairness.
But paying lip service to fairness is no consolation to the black men and women who wind up behind bars, and for longer terms mostly for drug possession than whites, the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, estimates that in the next few years 40 percent of black men may permanently be barred from the polls in the states with this restriction.
In the past it was easy to call this a good policy that makes it even rougher on lawbreakers. But it never was. The U.S. is now the only country in the world with blatantly discriminatory laws that ban a person from voting for life based on a criminal offense. Many of the men that are stripped of their right to vote are not convicted murderers, rapists, or robbers. Most are not denied the vote because of a court imposed sentence, since no states require that a judge bar an offender from voting as part of a criminal sentence, because of the seriousness of the crime, or severity of the sentence.
Many offenders don't even serve a day in prison. They may have been convicted of auto theft, or for first time drug possession, and given probation, or a fine. Since most are young men when they committed their crime the chances are good that many won't become career criminals, but will hold steady jobs, raise families and become responsible members of the community. Yet as long as society slaps on them the legal and social stigma of being a one-time criminal they are deprived of the basic constitutional right to vote and relegated to second class citizenship in perpetuity.
Holder had barely finished his call to the states to dump the felon voting bans than Republican governors in Iowa and Florida made it clear that they did not see the felon bans as racially-biased, and a blight on society and that they had no intention of touching the laws. It's worth noting that Holder's call for an end to the bans is just that a call. The attorney general has absolutely no authority to compel the states to take action on the bans. Worse, there have been few court challenges from civil liberties organizations. And despite the slightly shifting tide in public opinion about drug laws, sentencing, and even a rethink of treatment and rehabilitation for non-violent offenders, few public officials are willing to be cursed as "soft on crime," and most state legislatures have ignored the issue. A bill touted by Michigan Democrat John Conyers over the years to lift the prohibition on ex-felon voting never got any traction in Congress.
The only way ex-felons can get their voting rights restored is to seek a pardon from the governor. However, this is a dead end for most. So, few ex-felons even bother to request a pardon.
Holder did the right thing by attempting to verbally whipsaw the states to play fair with ex-felons and end their disenfranchisement. But for all his good intentions, the fight to end the nation's disgraceful ex-felon vote bans will be tough sledding.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson