F. SCOTT FITZGERALD is credited with saying that there are “no second acts in American life.” Given his druthers, Mitt Romney would turn that misguided vision into policy.
During Monday’s GOP presidential debate, Mr. Romney at times smugly touted his belief that the voting rights of defendants convicted of violent crimes should not be restored — even if they have served the requisite time behind bars and stayed on the right side of the law after release. “I’m not letting felons who had committed violent crimes to vote,” Mr. Romney said. “I think it’s a position that’s reasonable, and that’s the position I’ve got.”
The statement garnered strong applause from the South Carolina debate audience. Luckily, this parsimonious stance is out of step with the vast majority of states. Many automatically restore a felon’s voting rights upon release; others, like South Carolina, restore voting rights after an inmate successfully completes post-release supervision. Two states — Maine and Vermont — allow felons to vote while incarcerated. Even Virginia — traditionally one of the stingiest states in the country when it comes to restoring felons’ voting rights — has recently moved to reform and quicken the restoration process.
Supporters of Mr. Romney clearly think there are political points to be scored on this front. “Restore Our Future,” a super PAC that supports Mr. Romney, aired an ad attacking GOP hopeful Rick Santorum. One segment of the 30-second spot depicts an inmate in a telltale orange jumpsuit while the narrator informs viewers that the former Pennsylvania senator “even voted to let convicted felons vote.” The ad, Mr. Santorum rightly argued, could leave the impression that he favored allowing those behind bars to vote. In fact, Mr. Santorum embraces what is — especially in contrast to Mr. Romney — the truly reasonable position of restoring a felon’s voting rights after completion of his sentence.
Failure to restore voting rights could have a disproportionate impact on the African American community, as Mr. Santorum noted during the exchange. Although only a small percentage of the population, African Americans constitute a large segment of the prison population. Roughly 13 percent of African American men have lost the right to vote, according to a coalition of civil rights groups that back the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill from Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to restore federal voting rights to 4 million to 5 million disfranchised individuals.
Stripping a convicted felon of the right to vote is a serious consequence for the commission of a serious crime. But prolonging this punishment even after an inmate has paid his debt to society and earned the right to freedom is as unjust as it unwise, preventing individuals from having a full stake and a full voice in the community and its leadership. An individual’s ability to vote should not be a matter of grace subject to political whims.