FOUR YEARS AGO, the state of Florida -- where ex-felons are automatically barred from voting -- mistakenly designated an untold number of its residents as ineligible to vote in what proved to be a deadlocked presidential election. This year the state's list of potentially ineligible voters again appears to be seriously flawed, giving rise to the alarming possibility of another close election marred by avoidable errors. With a primary 11 weeks away, the state's incompetence in preparing its voter rolls puts a needless burden on local officials to correct errors -- something there is no guarantee they will actually be able to do.
The larger issue is why ex-felons are barred from voting. In seven states, writing a bad check or being convicted of a minor drug offense can prevent a person from exercising the essential obligation of citizenship -- even after that person pays his or her debt to society with prison time, probation or parole. Only a few successfully petition to regain their rights. An estimated 1.7 million ex-felons nationwide were disenfranchised in 2000, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice organization. This is wrong. Even the bipartisan National Commission on Federal Election Reform, headed by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford, agreed: Ex-felons who have completed their sentences should be welcomed back into the community fully. If that means anything, it should mean restoring their right to vote.
Laws such as Florida's -- which also exist in Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska and Virginia -- appear in less restrictive forms in seven other states, including Maryland, that ban only certain categories of ex-felons from voting. These laws are a vestige of a time when states sought to discourage blacks from voting, and they do, in fact, disproportionately disenfranchise African Americans. Eight percent of blacks in Maryland are deprived of the vote; in Virginia and Florida, a staggering 16 percent of the black population is disenfranchised.
Attempts in Maryland and Virginia to restore ex-felons' voting rights need much work. A Maryland law that was passed with great fanfare in 2002 and that was intended to automatically restore voting rights to more nonviolent ex-felons is proving ineffective. In Virginia, where legislative reforms have stalled, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has used his executive authority to grant 1,215 restorations of voting rights since taking office -- more than any of his predecessors since World War II. He's also simplified the application to restore rights to nonviolent offenders and accelerated the review process. But that's almost nothing in light of the 243,000 ex-felons who remain disenfranchised. Mr. Warner ought to take bolder steps and use his authority to automatically restore voting rights to all ex-felons once they have completed their sentences.