Not so hot water, Part Two

The editors of the Washington Post are up in arms over Virginia Governor McDonnell’s decision to require non-violent felons who seek a restoration of their voting rights to submit an essay outlining their contributions to society since their release and explaining why they should be permitted to vote. The Post’s editorial is long on outrage — it calls the decision a “disgrace” — and short on reason.
The Post invokes the Constitution, asserting that it regards the right to vote as “inalienable.” However, the Constitution has never been deemed to grant felons the absolute right to vote. If there’s a basis for challenging the constitutionality of McDonnell’s plan, the Post doesn’t identify it.
Instead, the Post plays the race card. It claims, based on figures supplied by “voting rights advocates,” that African Americans, who represent one-fifth of Virginia’s citizens, make up half of those who are unable to vote because of their criminal history.
If so, this isn’t Bob McDonnell’s fault. The test for any standard should be whether it’s a good standard. If a standard makes good sense, it should not be rejected because members of one segment of the population have more trouble than others meeting it. Otherwise, the quality of our society will slowly be degraded.
The Post never quite explains why it doesn’t make sense to ask people who have committed felonies to present some sort of indication that they deserve to help decide how we will be governed. Given the sky-high recidivism rate for criminals, I think there’s a clear benefit to obtaining some sense that ex-felons are on the path to becoming law abiding citizens before they rejoin the electorate. I don’t relish the prospect of having our laws determined in part by the criminal element of our society.
I would, however, favor the automatic restoration of the ability to vote for non-violent ex-felons who have no additional criminal convictions after the passage of a reasonable period of time. Based on the recidivism rate data I’ve seen, a period of around seven years seems reasonable for voting rights purposes.
As I acknowledged last night, McDonnell’s plan does create the potential for mischief. That’s why it should be watched closely. I have great faith that the Washington Post, having scrutinized McDonnell’s musings as a graduate student, will keep its eye on this one. In the meantime, given its past hyper-ventilating about McDonnell, the rest of us are entitled to a healthy dose of skepticism when the Post flings words like “disgrace” at him.

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