VIEWPOINT 2: Republicans should get on board and do the right thing
Since the 1860s, many states have stripped the voting rights of those convicted of felonies. In recent decades, however, some have revisited the issue and created pathways for restoring the voting rights of people who have served their sentences.
A majority of Americans support voting rights for all — including felons — leading to support for ballot initiatives across the country aimed at restoring the franchise for the formerly incarcerated. Americans of all political stripes should endorse limited government and not stand in the way of restoring voting rights to those who have already done their time.
Unfortunately, on this issue, Republicans, in particular, have played into the public narrative that they oppose democratic norms and disrespect our representative form of government. The most striking example is in Florida, where Republicans defied the will of the voters on Amendment 4, which automatically restored voting rights for felons who completed their sentences.
Specifically, the legislature subverted the ballot initiative’s intention by passing legislation requiring felons to pay certain fines before restoring their voting rights. Moreover, complicated rules made it difficult for felons exiting incarceration to know what fines they owed and if they were eligible to vote. The result is that many of the formerly incarcerated are still unable to vote — and those who do participate risk being arrested for voter fraud, as was the case with several Floridians who were told by officials that they could vote.
Republicans in Virginia also were on the wrong side of this issue. Gov. Glenn Youngkin unilaterally walked back Virginia’s felon enfranchisement program, a process that was essentially automatic under his predecessors. Those looking to restore their voting rights must go through an application-and-review process. Youngkin’s office still has not disclosed the criteria by which applicants are evaluated.
In both of these instances, high-profile governors defied conservative orthodoxy by increasing the reach and role of the government. Their actions decreased transparency in governing and occurred without the support of the people or respect for the constitutional rights of affected individuals.
Importantly, formerly incarcerated felons do not lose any other constitutional rights due to their convictions. Upon completing their sentences, they can exercise their rights to free speech, petition the government, contribute to and volunteer on behalf of political campaigns, and almost every other right guaranteed to American citizens.
To understand why those within the Republican Party should support the restoration of voting rights for felons, it is worth discussing why they might oppose it in the first place. Some of their opposition can be explained by the widely held belief that more voters spell bad news for Republican candidates. However, this is a myth, and Republicans should not fear expanding the electorate.
Perhaps the opposition is borne from pure electoral politics — a fear that this move would disproportionately benefit Black voters who overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates. While it is true that Black Americans are disproportionately incarcerated, the majority of inmates are white Americans, which undermines this particular challenge.
Another source of opposition is how voters perceive the two major parties on various issues. Overwhelmingly, Republicans are seen as better on crime, and there may be a fear that support for felon enfranchisement would jeopardize that. However, this is not a crime issue; it is a voting rights issue, and supporting voting rights for the formerly incarcerated allows Republicans to maintain their standing concerning crime while simultaneously improving views toward them on issues related to voting rights, an area in which Democrats have recently led.
Simply put, support for individual voting rights will not tip the scale on crime toward the party of “Defund the Police” and “Abolish ICE,” but it may help narrow the gap on other issues.
Moving away from these arguments does not require a wholesale ideological shift for Republicans. For example, another right lost to felons is that they cannot own firearms, but many Republicans supported legislation that would create a pathway for them to have their Second Amendment rights restored. As Colorado Republican Ken Buck said, “America is a land of second chances. One mistake should not define your future.”
The same logic should apply to the right to vote. If the Republican Party is serious about defending individual rights and freedoms, it should support voting rights for those who have served their time and paid their dues to society.