Rick Santorum is right

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

22 March 2012


A mailer that a Mitt Romney-associated SuperPAC sent to voters in Alabama

The picture above is a missive sent to voters in Alabama from the Mitt Romney-supporting SuperPAC Restore Our Future. It echoes a line Romney supporters used against Santorum in South Carolina. Clearly it didn't work — "Washington insider" Rick Santorum won the Yellowhammer State's primary — but I'm more interested in the substance of the attack than its efficacy. It might not play well among conservatives in the Deep South, but this crazy idea is one Santorum was one hundred per cent right to support.

Romney's and Santorum's differing views on the issue were explicated in a debate prior to the South Carolina primary. Romney:

"I don't think people who have committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again. That's my own view."

Santorum:

"Governor Romney's super PAC has put an ad out there suggesting that I voted to allow felons to be able to vote from prison," he said. "I would ask Governor Romney, do you believe people who have — who were felons, who served their time, who have extended, exhausted their parole and probation, should they be given the right to vote?"

[...]

The former Pennsylvania repeated his question, noting that "This is Martin Luther King Day. This is a huge deal in the African-American community, because we have very high rates of incarceration, disproportionately high rates, particularly with drug crimes, in the African-American community."

"The bill I voted on was the Martin Luther King Voting Rights bill," he continued. "And this was a provision that said, particularly targeted African-Americans. And I voted to allow — to allow them to have their voting rights back once they completed their sentence. Do you agree with that?" he prompted.

Santorum is right. Laws that restrict from voting people who have been convicted of a felony and served their time disproportionately affect African Americans — and Latinos. As of 2000, 4.7 million Americans [PDF] are temporarily or permanently restricted from voting because they have been convicted of a crime. It's a policy common to many states, yet one that makes no sense. It is entirely unreasonable to continue to punish a criminal after he has served his sentence, and counter-productive to re-integrating him into society by denying him the basic right of enfranchisement that underpins democratic government.

One thing Santorum was eager to point out, however, was that he didn't support voting rights for people currently serving time for a felony. He was fine with stripping convicts of the right to vote — he just wanted to re-enfranchise them once they had been released.

But why shouldn't all citizens in a democracy — even those imprisoned — vote? What harm could come of maintaining that the right to vote is a basic right that should be available even to society's worst members? Isn't their value in treating suffrage as an intrinsic entitlement rather than a privilege to apportioned out or taken away by the state?

I ask because I'm quite familiar with a country that permits prisoners to vote, with no apparent harm. This is from the Australian Electoral Commission's website:

If you are serving a full-time prison sentence of less than three years you can vote in federal elections.

If your sentence is three years or longer, you can remain on the roll but you are not entitled to vote until you are released from prison.

Somehow Australian* democracy has flourished even while we allow criminals to vote! America, why not follow suit.


* If you're an American who thinks now would be a good time to make a "founded by criminals" joke, don't bother! It's not that it's offensive — far from it — it's just that we have heard them all before, and, in this case, your comments won't be useful in the slightest!

Tags: Australia, Australian Electoral Commission, Disenfranchisement, Election 2012, Felons, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Voting, Voting Rights

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