Despite President George W. Bush's high poll numbers, the Democrats think they have the key to winning the 2004 elections. Get the votes of convicted felons. Don't laugh; the Democrats are deadly serious.
The nation's 4 million convicted felons could be enough to swing the November election. Surveys show that the overwhelming majority would vote Democratic if they could, so felons are a voting bloc that Democrats are just itching to harvest.
In addition to providing the magic bullet to elect their candidates in November, this issue reprises all the sour grapes whining by Democrats about the president winning Florida in 2000. The Democrats know that if felons had been allowed to vote in Florida, Al Gore would have won Florida and be president today.
The laws of 48 states restrict the ability of convicted felons to vote, and those state laws vary widely.
State laws may distinguish between those who are now behind bars and those who have been released, or whether they are repeat offenders, or whether they are violent or nonviolent offenders, or whether they are parolees or probationers. Maine and Vermont allow convicts to vote even when they are in prison.
Allowing felons to vote is highly unpopular with Americans, but laws are amended from time to time. Since 1996, nine states have repealed a few of their voting barriers for convicted felons, while three states made their laws tougher.
These changes don't appear to have anything to do with partisanship or geography. The states easing their bans were Alabama, Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming. The states that toughened their policies were Massachusetts (by constitutional amendment), Utah and Kansas.
The Democrats haven't a chance for wholesale repeal of these laws. So the are doing what liberals always do: They line up the American Civil Liberties Union and other left-wing lawyers and seek out activist judges to issue rulings that elected legislators will not make.
Democrats are using a study made by two sociologists, one at the University of Minnesota and the other at Northwestern University, suggesting that, since 1978, seven U.S. Senate races plus the 2000 presidential election would have turned out differently if felons had been allowed to vote. The professors estimate that Florida felons would have given Al Gore an additional 60,000 votes, more than enough to wipe out Bush's narrow margin of victory.
To try to give convicted felons the franchise, Democrats are playing the race card, asserting that state laws have a "disparate impact" on blacks and Hispanics and therefore violate equal-protection guarantees. The laws, of course, are colorblind.
Furthermore, it is no more discriminatory to deny felons their franchise than to deny them certain categories of employment, child custody or gun ownership.
Lawsuits have been filed to overturn the laws that bar felons from voting in the states of Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Washington.
Florida's law permits felons to regain their voting rights by executive clemency and Florida's department of corrections has agreed to assist felons navigate the restoration process. Officials estimate that 130,000 Florida felons will soon be empowered to vote, but Democrats are still going forward with their lawsuit.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta by a 2-1 vote reversed a District Court ruling in December and ordered a trial on the race allegations in Florida, even though the plaintiffs presented no evidence of racial animus. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court decision was written by one of Clinton's most controversial nominees, Judge Rosemary Barkett.
The dissenting opinion in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court case pointed out that the 14th Amendment, Section 2, "explicitly allows states to disenfranchise convicted felons." Furthermore, the dissent explained, in the time when Florida adopted the rule against voting by felons, no "disparate impact" on minorities existed, so there could not have been bias in the adoption of the rule.
A U.S. District Court in Spokane, Wash., dismissed a case brought by prison inmates, but the liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court sent Farrakhan vs. State of Washington back for trial. The felons want the law overturned because blacks make up 37 percent of the felons denied the franchise.
New Jersey allows felons to vote after they complete their incarceration, parole or probation, but that doesn't please Democrats. Ten ex-convicts, including a convicted killer, are suing to void the state law, because 81 percent of the prison population, 75 percent of parolees and 52 percent of probationers are black or Hispanic.
These plaintiffs are backed by the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at the Rutgers University School of Law, the New Jersey State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey and the ACLU.
The U.S. Constitution reserves the matter of voting regulations to state legislatures and specifically authorizes the disenfranchisement of felons. We should not permit activist judges to change the laws.
Phyllis Schlafly is a national leader of the pro-family movement, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Feminist Fantasies.
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