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Voting Rights: Time To Think Differently For Those Who've Done Time?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'd like to take a moment now to check in on the evolving debate over crime and punishment. Right now, we want to focus on the voting rights of people who have served their sentences.

Currently, 11 states bar some or all ex-felons from voting. But critics believe that such rules are unfair and actually discourage former criminals from rebuilding their lives as productive citizens. An estimated 5.8 million Americans are disenfranchised as a result of these policies.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently urged states to re-examine the issue, in recent remarks at Georgetown University.


ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across this country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called two people who often speak with us about matters of civil rights. Spencer Overton is a professor of law at Georgetown University. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Overton is a professor at George Washington University Law School.] He's currently serving as interim president and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That's a Washington, D.C., think tank. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Also joining us is Hans von Spakovsky. He is a senior legal fellow and manager at the Heritage Foundation. They were both, actually, former aides in the Justice Department in different administrations. And they're both here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Once again, welcome back.


MARTIN: So, Spencer, let's start with you. There's a range of laws across the United States about voting rights for former felons. Are there wide differences and where is this, in your view, this issue most concerning?

OVERTON: Well, the norm is in 39 states and also most countries around the world, people who have served their time can actually vote. And it's just these 11 states in the U.S. where some or all people cannot vote. In fact, there are about four states where people who have - are returning to society just cannot vote. It's pretty much blanket, right. So...

MARTIN: There's no process by which they can have their voting rights restored?

OVERTON: They can actually apply to have them restored the problem is that that's ineffective. Mark Warner restored rights to just about everyone who applied, and he restored rights to only 1 percent of the people who were eligible. So the application process is not effective.

MARTIN: I'm not sure I understand this - so what you're saying is that - are there states in which there is no way you can have your voting rights restored, absent some extraordinary way like having a governor pardon you or something of that?

OVERTON: In 39 states, your rights are restored automatically. In 11 states, you have to apply to have them restored. Not surprisingly, a lot of people don't want to revisit, they just don't want to revisit the worst thing that they've done or a bad experience. And so they don't go back through the process and fill out the paperwork and apply to have their rights restored. The attorney general called for the automatic restoration of voting rights once people finish their sentences.

MARTIN: OK. Hans von Spakovsky, what's your perspective on this?

SPAKOVSKY: Well, look, I agree with Spencer that I don't see a problem with felons having their voting rights restored, but I don't think there's also a problem with states like Virginia, for example, that has a waiting period - in Virginia, for certain crimes, it's three years, for more serious crimes, it's five years. And the whole point is to see whether people really have learned their lesson and reintegrated into society. And that's actually a good thing to do - why?

MARTIN: Yeah, why?

SPAKOVSKY: Because the recidivism rate is so high for felons - if you look at the three to five-year period, and depending on the crime, it's anywhere from 30, to 40, to 50 percent of felons going back in prison. So having a waiting period and then if they come out and they clearly have shown they've learned their lesson, then restoring their voting rights I think is a good idea and it should be done.

MARTIN: Well, what - can I just ask you, though...


MARTIN: What's the relevance of them learning their lesson to their taking their responsibilities as citizens? I mean, some might argue that we don't ask them to take a waiting period before they get a job, right, to show that they would be responsible workers. So what's the difference?

SPAKOVSKY: Well, the difference is that when you're voting, you are voting on the laws and rules under which society will operate. I mean, that's basically what you're doing. These are individuals who have demonstrated that they weren't willing to abide by those rules and laws.

MARTIN: But isn't that what probation is for? Are saying that this period of not being able to vote should extend beyond their probation?

SPAKOVSKY: I'm saying that if states want to have a waiting period, to be sure, and sure that these people have learned their lesson and aren't going to again commit crimes like up to 50 percent do. I don't have a problem with that.

MARTIN: Spencer?

OVERTON: I think it's bad policy, these laws don't have...

MARTIN: Why is it bad policy?

OVERTON: Because they don't have a purpose. They've never been shown to prevent new crimes. In fact, they increase crime. They perpetuate a stigma, they isolate people, they prevent people from reintegrating into society. The Florida Parole Commission looked at this question and they found that those who are banned from voting were three times more likely to commit crimes than those who had their voting rights restored. Ninety-five percent of prisoners in this country are eventually released. We want policies that allow those folks to integrate into society and not commit crimes.

MARTIN: Wait, you think the critical factor in people being reoffending or not is whether they were allowed to vote?

OVERTON: I think that's...

MARTIN: Why would it work that way?

OVERTON: Well, that's one of the factors suggested by the data. That those people...

MARTIN: But could the factor be that the people who reapply are more motivated, period?

OVERTON: I think that could be one reason, but other studies have shown even in other states that automatically restore voting rights, that those people have lower recidivism rates.

MARTIN: Hans, could you focus a little bit more for me on your argument about why you feel a waiting period is appropriate even if it extends beyond the period of probation? Because isn't that what probation is by definition, to show that you can follow the norms of society? So why should you think a waiting period to vote extend beyond the period of supervision by the court, which probation is?

SPAKOVSKY: Because the facts show that depending on the crime and the state up, to 50 percent of felons haven't learned their lesson. They recommit felonies, they go back to court. And, look, I would - I take Spencer at his word on this, but let me tell you, there was something glaringly deficient and missing in what the attorney general said.

You don't just lose your right to vote when you're convicted of a felony, you lose your right to serve on a jury, you lose your right to own a gun, a Second Amendment right, you lose your right to certain kinds of public employment, like being a police officer. There was not one word in what Eric Holder said about restoring any of those other rights. Now if he really believes this will reintegrate people into society, they've paid their debt, why isn't he saying anything about all of those other rights that you lose? That makes me think that he's not really that concerned about these people as individuals. He's just interested in getting their votes.

MARTIN: Because your supposition is that these people would be more inclined to vote for Eric Holder's party, which is the Democratic Party, is that your supposition here?

SPAKOVSKY: Yeah. Yeah, and...

MARTIN: Because the whole question of gun ownership rights seems to be one that's very attractive to the Republican Party as well. Why wouldn't Republicans be interested in people who restored their gun ownership rights because their voting rights were restored?

SPAKOVSKY: Well, no, but I actually agree with that. I think that if a state believes that someone has learned their lesson and their voting rights should be restored, I think that their gun rights and all these other rights that have been taken away should also be restored.

MARTIN: OK. Spencer Overton?

OVERTON: The attorney general's speech focused on restoring voting rights. When I was at the Justice Department working for Eric Holder, I led a team that focused on reentry. And one of the issues we focused on was collateral consequences, not just voting - but there are a variety of them - and changing them so that people can, when they get out of prison, they can become barbers and many states have rules that prevent them from becoming barbers and there are a whole other, a range...

MARTIN: So you're saying that's a separate issue?

OVERTON: Not that it's a separate issue, but the attorney general is dealing with those issues and is recommending that states revisit and revise that. Now that wasn't...

MARTIN: But what about this argument, though? His argument is - Mr. von Spakovsky's argument is that he feels that this is really a way to create another pool of potential voters for the Democrats?

OVERTON: It's not a partisan issue. Rand Paul supports restoration of rights. Governor Bob McDonnell in Virginia worked to restore voting rights. Governor George Bush in Texas restored voting rights to a hundred percent of people automatically.

MARTIN: Hans von Spakovsky, why might not a reasonable person look at it the other way, which is that we know that African-Americans and Latinos are incarcerated at higher numbers relative to their presence in the population - couldn't a reasonable person say, well, actually the opposition to this is motivated by the opposite concern, not wanting these people to vote?

SPAKOVSKY: No, 'cause actually if you go by the numbers that the attorney general cited in his own speech, there are twice as many white Americans who have lost their right to vote because of felonies. My point is that if you really believe that this is the best thing for people once they've gotten out of prison, that this helps him reintegrate them into society, well, then you should be willing to restore all of their rights. Whatever may have happened internally, Eric Holder, in his monumental speech on this, designed to draw attention to this issue, did not say a word about any of these other rights.

MARTIN: Well, we're going to give you the last word. Spencer Overton, we gave you the first word. On this one, we'll give Hans von Spakovsky the last word - well, the last for today.


MARTIN: Let's say it this way, until we meet again. Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow and manager at the Heritage Foundation. Spencer Overton is the interim president and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, as well as professor of law at Georgetown University. Both of them former aides at the Justice Department, serving in different administrations. They're with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for joining us.

OVERTON: Thanks.

SPAKOVSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 27, 2014 at 10:00 PM MST
In this story, we identify guest Spencer Overton as a law professor at Georgetown University. Actually, Overton is a professor at George Washington University Law School.
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