A Sudden Push for Felon Voting Rights in a Most Unlikely Place

RIght now there is a stream of legislation on Capitol Hill that could open the door to restoration of the vote for millions of disenfranchised convicts and ex-cons.

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But catching the eye of many political observers is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the controversial libertarian from the Bluegrass State who has fumbled on civil rights discourse in the past. Yet not only is Paul authoring the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act and the REDEEM Act, but he’s also been viewed as leading a bipartisan charge on criminal-justice issues that’s an about-face from the usual tough-on-crime approach preferred by Republican rank and file.

Paul, sitting alongside the very liberal Cardin at the ACLU event, called felon disenfranchisement “the biggest problem of voting rights facing our country.” That’s clearly out of step with GOP colleagues who would say that distinction goes to voter fraud. 

“The largest impediment to employment and voting rights is the criminal-justice system,” argued Paul. “I don’t mean to downplay past challenges minorities have had with voting rights, but I do think this is the biggest problem.”

While advocates have been working on felon-rights issues for years, Meade attributes the fresh look at voting rights to skyrocketing prison costs. “The cost of incarceration, the amount of dollars the prison system commands, has led to a natural review of the issue,” Meade told The Root.

Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel in the ACLU’s Washington office, describes movement on the issue as “bipartisan,” although Paul is the only visible Republican to date. And despite the political impossibility of passing such a bill in the hyperpartisan House, Vagins is hopeful, pointing to steps Holder’s Justice Department could take.

“He’s talking about an issue we’ve been talking about for some time,” Vagins told The Root. “I do believe the department could set up a system whereby they inform prisoners of their loss of voting rights in plea agreements, for example. Or the Bureau of Prisons could take administrative steps to notify them.”

But if voting rights were ultimately restored, would ex-offenders actually vote? Meade is ecstatic about the prospect: “What’s most important, beyond exercising the right to vote, is that they actually have the choice to participate in the democratic process.”

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. He can be reached via Twitter.

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Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.