Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Clegg on the ex-Con Vote

I have Sirius satellite radio these days & have been making up for years of lack of access to public radio by listening to things like Radio Times. I don't know why. CBC Radio 3 is a much, much better choice, and I don't get mad at all listening to it. Anyway, this morning, Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity (lest the name confuse you, be sure to follow the link and learn about the racial hiring preferences that threaten the American Way . . . you can also get your RDA of the colors red, white, and blue while you're there) and National Review contributor made several arguments about why ex-felons should not be allowed to vote. They were a reiteration of what he's published at NRO:

The reason we don't let felons vote has nothing to do with race and everything to do with common sense. Individuals who have shown they are unwilling too follow the law cannot claim the right to make laws for the rest of us. We don't let everyone vote — not children, for instance, or noncitizens, or the mentally incompetent. We have certain minimum standards of trustworthiness before we let people participate in the serious business of self-government, and people who commit serious crimes don't meet those standards.

It is frequently asserted that felons released from prison should be able to vote because they have "paid their debt to society." But the felon-vote movement will, if pressed, admit that they think felons in prison should be allowed to vote, too. And society is not obliged to ignore someone's criminal record just because he has been released from prison. Felons are barred by federal law from possessing firearms, for example.

It is true that some felons — say, someone who wrote a bad check decades ago and has led an exemplary life since then — ought to have their voting rights restored, but these determinations should be made on a case-by-case, not a wholesale, basis. It is also true that these laws have come to have a disproportionate impact on blacks, but this was not deliberate and will cease once a disproportionate number of felonies are no longer committed by blacks.

The irony is that the people whose votes will be diluted the most if felons are reenfranchised are the law-abiding citizens in communities with a high proportion of felons in them. These citizens, who are also most frequently the victims of crime, are of course themselves disproportionately poor and minority. But somehow the bien pensants always forget them.

Part of Clegg's argument that I don't represent here (because he doesn't really cover it in the NRO piece) is a state's rights issue: the constitution, with the exception of certain provisions, allows states to establish who can and cannot vote. I'm actually OK with this argument.

But pretty much everything else he said was loaded emotionally. Note how he avoids altogether the discussion of rehabilitation by reducing that theme to a scare-quoted "debt to society." Also: above, he makes an argument that the people living in high-crime communities will have their votes diluted by ex -cons .On the radio he said that he was actually looking out for African-Americans and Hispanics, that he was more interested that they not be "hurt" by the voting ex-cons who have moved back into their high-crime neighborhoods. How does it "hurt" them? What is this dilution he's talking about? Does he really imagine some kind of pro-felony candidtate getting elected?

Or does he worry that someone interested in fixing the broken criminal justice system will get elected?

In what was not acknowledged as a related observation Clegg also argued with callers who suggested that the criminal justice system is inherently flawed and racist. He made the argument that enfranchising ex-cons isn't going to fix the problem, that--"if there is a problem"--it will need to be fixed within the system or something or other that didn't make any sense. He said it like it was obvious. But I can't think of any other way of fixing a racist system than guarding carefully the enfranchisement of those most made powerless by that system. Besides, there are so many problems with that system that Clegg's general insistence that felons shouldn't be allowed to vote simplistically leaves unaddressed the massive (massive!) recategorization of what is felony in this country since Nixon. We have the world's largest proportion of citizens behind bars; Clegg says he's pretty sure they're almost all guilty. But of what? Posession?

As several callers noted, the bigger and more direct--and more carefully documented--problem for voters in high-crime areas is that prisons are no longer located in or near those areas. Prisons, both private and public, have been a growing economic factor in rural parts of the country for a long time now (there's a two-year-old 500-bed facility in my town of 600 people). Prisoners are counted by the census according to where they are incarcerated. The result is that tiny towns in Western PA suddenly show a surge in population that affects positively their representation, their federal and state funding, etc. An equal and opposite reaction, of course, occurs in high-crime communities, and it is not alleviated with ex-cons return home. To go about their business of diluting the vote.

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