Notes on Kamp: Cowards
Why is the right wing so scared of voting rights?
What does it say about your confidence in the quality of your ideas when you don't want to hear what people think of them? This is the question I'd most like to ask those who continue to restrict voting rights.
Restricting who votes in America is a three-pronged endeavor. We prevent legally eligible voters from voting with voter ID laws that place onerous hurdles to voting that are disproportionately high for poor, rural, disabled, and elderly people. We resist immigration reform that would provide a path to citizenship for millions, who would then become eligible voters. And, finally, we limit voting rights for incarcerated people and others who have been convicted of crimes.
That final portion of the project to treat voting like a privilege rather than a right has been the subject of much debate, both nationally and locally. In Texas, people convicted of felonies, no matter what kind, can vote once they've completed all the terms of their sentence, including probation and parole. Only three states completely disenfranchise all felons: Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa. However, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe only very recently restored voting rights to the more than 200,000 Virginians convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences, and the state legislature's leaders have sued to block his executive order. Unsurprisingly, McAuliffe is a Democrat; the Virginia legislature is led by Republicans.
I think anyone with a passing familiarity with our paper knows that the Chronicle is not warmly disposed to the GOP; however, I would feel far more accepting of whatever abortion-blocking, bathroom-terrorizing, Medicaid-slashing scheme our Republican-led state government might cook up in the future if that government were elected by a significant number of this state's residents. Just as with voter ID laws and resistance to immigration reform, felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects people who tend not to be the demographic the right considers its base: They're more likely to be poor, and they're less likely to be white.
For example, The Washington Post reports that McAuliffe's "decision particularly affects black residents of Virginia: 1 in 4 African Americans in the state has been permanently banned from voting because of laws restricting the rights of those with convictions." (See "About 200,000 convicted felons in Virginia will now have the right to vote in November," April 22.) But, of course, that's not the way that those who fight enfranchisement put it. In an editorial that ran in the Austin American-Statesman on May 19 (see "Should felons be allowed to vote? Yes, but ...") and other papers, Heritage Foundation mouthpiece Hans von Spakovsky argued against McAuliffe's actions, asking, "Do murderers, rapists, child molesters and armed robbers really deserve automatic restoration of their rights? They owe society and their victims a debt that can never be repaid."
As much as it exhausts me to see the same, tired tactic of lumping in everyone who is convicted of a felony with "child molesters," our favorite modern-day bogeyman, I will go ahead and answer von Spakovsky's rhetorical question and say, yes, murderers, rapists, child molesters, and armed robbers do deserve automatic restoration of their rights once they've completed their sentences. Regardless of what von Spakovsky thinks, a person's debt to society is the term of their sentence. To force a person to continue to pay after they've served their time is unfair and unreasonable.
Additionally, Texas and other states should go further, and allow people to vote even while they're in prison. What do we think is going to happen? Everyone with a felony is going to somehow mobilize and create a referendum that makes murder legal? (I'm pretty sure that already happened with Stand Your Ground, but I digress.)
It's not that I think that people who are convicted of crimes are necessarily good people (although some of them are); it's that I'm not comfortable with us saying that only "good people" get to vote. As criminal justice reform advocate Lauren Johnson put it in a reply she wrote to von Spakovsky's editorial: "People do not cease to become part of our community when they make a bad choice, nor should they not be counted." (See "Even those with felony criminal records deserve dignity," Austin American-Statesman, May 30.)
I am comfortable with the fact that the democratic process means that I don't always get what I want. I want everyone's voice to be heard, not just the ones I think might agree with me.