The Secret Weapon of 2008

Felons are getting the vote back—and Republicans aren’t stopping them.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist

As a bonus of the U.S. attorney scandal, we’ve learned about the Bush administration’s penchant for bogus voter-fraud prosecutions, which deported immigrants for mistakenly filling out voter-registration cards. We’ve also learned about the Justice Department’s questionable voting-law interpretations, which led states to mistakenly scrap tens of thousands of voter applications. One thing this administration is good at, it turns out, is vote suppression. And yet somehow, it hasn’t stopped one swelling of the voting rolls that is hardly in the GOP’s interests: The re-enfranchisement of felons, in red states as well as blue ones.

Earlier this month in Florida, it was one of the GOP’s own, Gov. Charlie Crist, who did the vote-restoration deed. Invoking themes of forgiveness and redemption over Easter week, Crist persuaded fellow Republicans on the state clemency board to automatically restore the vote to nonviolent former felons who had paid any restitution they owed. Florida has 950,000 ex-offenders. Crist gave the vote back to upward of 750,000 of them. Think about it: George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in 2000 and about 380,000 votes in 2004.

When their voting power is restored, ex-offenders tend to vote in presidential elections at a rate of 35 percent (compared to 52 percent of the rest of us), but they do overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, according to sociologists Jeff Manza and Chistopher Uggen, authors of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy.  Even if the people Crist re-enfranchised remember him personally at the ballot box, they’re not in the least likely to vote for the rest of his ticket. Along with President Bush, Manza and Uggen came up with a list of Republican senators who are in office because felons couldn’t vote for their opponents. The sociologists look at the thin margins by which these senators won, calculate the likely voting rates for felons, and conclude that if they could have voted, they’d have cast enough votes for the Democratic rivals to tip the election. Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida and Jim Bunning of Kentucky are the most recent additions to Manza and Uggen’s list. In other words, Crist’s reform could really cost the GOP.

And yet Florida is in good company. You could almost say the country is facing a restore-the-vote craze—and that for some reason no one much seems to be opposing it. This week, Maryland gave back the vote to more than 50,000 former felons who have completed their prison sentences and finished with probation and parole. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley signed that bill over calls for a veto from Republicans. In November, Rhode Island voters approved the first state referendum to restore the vote to felons. The margin was slim—51 percent to 49 percent—but so were the resources spent by the vote-restoration side: only $300,000.

In the last several years, other states have removed lifetime ballot bans or waiting periods for ex-offenders: New Mexico (more than 68,000 regained the vote in 2001); Connecticut (33,000 people on probation regained the vote in 2002); Delaware (switched from lifetime ban to five-year waiting period in 2000); and Texas (eliminated two-year waiting period in 1998, allowing more than 300,000 former felons to join the rolls). In Colorado, a restoration bill is pending. In Kentucky, an effort to amend the state constitution to eliminate a lifetime voting ban for felons died recently, but it will be reintroduced next year and has a chance of passing. In Virginia, the only other remaining state with a lifetime ban, the Roanoke Times urged the legislature to follow Florida after Crist’s show of mercy this month.

In addition to the number of states, the most surprising thing about all of this vote-restoration is the increasingly muted quality of the opposition. The argument for allowing ex-offenders to vote is that they’ve paid their debt and should be reintegrated: If we treat them like full citizens, they’ll be more likely to act like full citizens. The argument against allowing ex-offenders to vote is that they forfeited this right when they committed their crime, and anyway we don’t want the likes of them deciding who gets elected. In 2002, some senators made that argument in debating a federal re-enfranchisement bill, and in 2004, the National Review Online had a run of commentaries that accused Democrats of cynical vote-grabbing over the issue. Maybe I am looking in the wrong places, but this time around I can hardly even find a pissed-off blog post. After the Florida move, Tucker Carlson feebly suggested that “if you’re going to let people decide who runs the country, you ought to let them hunt and have a gun.” And here’s an unfunny call for a “felon barnstorming tour” from a columnist at the Palm Beach Post. But that’s about it. Far more editorial pages and commentators applauded Crist and even wondered, fawningly, whether he could be a new breed of politician.

While that’s a bit much, it is significant that a Republican governor decided that his interests lay with the felons. Maybe Crist has been moved by fellow conservatives Chuck Colson and Jack Kemp, who argue for raising up rather than condemning former criminals. Or maybe the governor thinks the issue plays well with moderate voters—public opinion polls show that about 60 percent of Americans support letting felons vote after they’ve completed their sentences, according to Manza and Uggen. Then there’s the questionable history of Florida’s law, which dates to 1868 and the post-Civil War days of poll taxes and intimidation of black voters. Also, Manza and Uggen have found, as Jason DeParle points out in the New York Review of Books, that “the more African-Americans a state contains, the more likely it has been to ban felons from voting.”

Other Republicans have gone where Crist went before him: George W. Bush signed the Texas re-enfranchisement bill when he was governor. Is restoring the felon vote starting to be hard to oppose? If that’s so, then the 2008 electoral map may look bluer—in spite of the Justice Department efforts to tamp down the vote on other fronts. More than 5 million people couldn’t vote because of their criminal records in 2004. That’s a lot of ballots.