The question of giving ex-convicts in California full voting rights has come up, and as with most controversies, the proposal raises other questions.
For example, if men and women have committed crimes, been convicted, served their sentences and completed the post-prison parole process, should they have their rights as citizens fully restored?
Which then leads to this question: If your answer is they should not be given their rights, what is the purpose of all those years behind bars?
The obvious answer is — punishment for foul deeds. But if you dive deeper into this matter, you also have to ask yourself why taxpayers foot the bill for years of incarceration, and the revolving door of recidivism.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and fellow Democrats in the state Legislature are proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow prison parolees to vote in all elections. State law now prohibits such voting, affecting tens of thousands of ex-convicts still serving the tail end of sentences in a parol program.
Democrats hold a rock-solid majority in the state Assembly and Senate, so one might reasonably assume that restoring voting rights for former convicts would be a slam dunk, at least the part about getting the measure on a statewide ballot. But, as sportscaster Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend.”
For one thing, restoring rights for citizens who also happened to have been imprisoned for crimes seems contrary to the efforts in some states to make voting more difficult for citizens.
The other big element is that giving full voting rights to ex-felons can be seen, because of prison demographics, as a basic civil rights issue, given the disproportion of minorities behind bars. There are valid reasons for that disproportion, but it plays into the debate about giving former convicts full voting rights.
That brings up another interesting point, which is that when a person has served his or her time in prison, and completed the post-prison requirements, should they have a say in the policies they believe helped put them behind bars in the first place?
This is by no means a small issue. There are an estimated 6 million American citizens who are not eligible to vote because they are felons who have served their time. That could turn out to be a significant voting bloc — if ex-convicts can get excited about the political process, then become active participants. After all, many if not most of those former convicts have settled back into a normal life, are working, paying taxes and presumably obeying the laws they once scoffed at.
The constitutional amendment, as proposed, only restores voting rights to ex-cons on parole, not while they are still behind bars. Advocates say restoring voting rights would encourage parolees to complete the program, rather than reverting to a life of crime.
As you can see, this is a complicated, multi-faceted issue — and we haven’t even touched on the aspect of restoring the rights of a person who has committed a crime, and how the families of their victims may feel about the rights question. Victims’ advocacy groups have made it clear they are against such a move.
It may come down to whether a former convict can be trusted with the right to vote, which circles us back to the efficacy of the whole idea of imprisonment as a means of correcting criminal behavior. If the belief is that true reform isn’t likely, should convicts be kept behind bars for life?
Let the debate begin.