Ex-felons’ voting rights must be protected

Virginia just added 200,000 newly eligible voters to its voting population right in time for the 2016 presidential election, according to an April 22 NPR article.

An executive order by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored the voting rights of felons who have served their time in prison and are now on parole or probation. The order also allows released felons to run for public office and serve on a jury or as notaries, according to the NPR article.  

Ten states have laws calling for felons to lose their voting rights, according to Procon.org, a website that aggregates information on controversial issues. Some states offer paths to restoration; a few offer none at all when certain crimes are committed.

It’s clear that laws restricting voting rights unfairly target minority groups. Minority groups are incarcerated at higher rates due to a discriminatory legal system so the voting rights of people within these groups are directly affected by such laws.

Some have suggested Virginia’s order will give an unfair advantage to candidates favored by minorities.  Fox News reported on April 23 the ex-felons who have had their voting rights restored through this executive order could be the swing vote in the next presidential election and help Hillary Clinton win Virginia if she is the Democratic nominee.

However, it is unlikely that each of the 206,000 people who will be newly eligible to vote will all vote the same way. Even if they did, re-establishing former felons’ voting rights is far from unfair as it gives those individuals the chance to participate in the democratic process.

Restoring voting rights is part of the reintegration process for former felons. Being able to express their opinions through voting could be an important step toward becoming a responsible citizen.

Illinois law allows felons to regain voting rights after completing incarceration, probation and parole time, according to Procon.org.

A law like Illinois’ seems to be the best course of action in this area. Felons do have to serve time for the crimes they commit and as part of serving that time, they do have to give up certain rights. However, if individuals serve their time, there is no reason to keep them from regaining their rights.

Virginia’s executive order does not have the force of law and can be repealed by the next governor. This happened in Kentucky where a governor took executive action to restore voting rights to former felons in November 2015, only to have the executive order repealed by the next governor in December 2015, according to a Dec. 23, 2015 article from The Washington Post.

Executive orders are effective as a last resort for restoring voting rights, but, clearly, legislative action needs to be taken nationwide. This is a situation in which outdated legislation has overstayed its welcome. This legislation may have seemed appropriate to lawmakers in the Civil War era, but legislators should know better now.