Steve Chapman

If you voted last week, you may have seen some new faces in the line to cast ballots. College kids who have turned 18 since the last election. Naturalized immigrants eager to exercise one of the privileges of citizenship. Even a few ex-convicts.

Or maybe more than a few. In most places, anyone convicted of a felony loses the right to vote for some period -- while he's behind bars, until he's completed his term of probation, or even for life. But in recent years, 23 states have revised their laws to let more onetime criminals take part in this ritual of democracy, and the changes have had a noticeable effect.

According to a new report by Nicole Porter of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, "As a result of the reforms achieved during the period from 1997-2010, an estimated 800,000 persons have regained the right to vote."

It's an unlikely development. True, the case for letting former inmates vote is easy to make. It recognizes them as individuals capable of rehabilitation. It encourages them to reintegrate into society.

But let's face it: There is not a huge incentive for state legislators to care about this disenfranchised group, since disenfranchised people don't vote. Beyond the ranks of felons and their families, most people don't know or care much about the issue.

Granting a benefit to those who have broken the law can be portrayed as soft on crime. When the idea began to get attention back in the 1990s, some Republicans even worried that easing the bans, which have a disproportionate effect on African-Americans, would only help Democrats at the polls.

In spite of all these impediments, though, a lot of states have liberalized their laws. One pioneer was George W. Bush, who as governor of Texas signed legislation automatically restoring the franchise to inmates who have served their sentences. That decision gave 317,000 people the right to vote. Other red states have inched the same direction, including Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Nebraska.

That's a credit to Republican politicians who grasped the basic indefensibility of the policy. It's not as though barring felons from voting is a deterrent to crime, and it's not as though bands of ex-cons are plotting to gain political power.

For that matter, disenfranchisement is of no consequence to incorrigible criminals, who are more apt to see Election Day as a chance to burglarize unoccupied homes than an opportunity to shape economic policy. Most of the people affected by restrictive policies are people who have cleaned up their acts enough to care about being participants in our system of government.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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