Steve Chapman

The political consequences of the reforms are hard to detect, if they exist at all. Texas is every bit as Republican as it was in 1997.

Florida, which had one of the harshest policies, now automatically restores the vote to those convicted of some crimes and made it easier for others to regain it. The measure, pushed by then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, helped some 150,000 people. They apparently did not turn out in droves to vote for him in his independent U.S. Senate race, which he lost to Republican Marco Rubio.

Utah, Montana and North Dakota remain as red as a fire truck even though felons are eligible to vote as soon as they complete their sentences. Vermont and Maine allow felons to vote (SET ITAL) while they are in prison (END ITAL), and Sentencing Project executive director Marc Mauer notes that "they have not been taken over by criminals." For that matter, Republicans just captured the Maine legislature and the governorship.

The puzzle is that the changes have come about when there are no important constituencies to press for them. Mauer says that his group's campaign against strict disenfranchisement laws helped spark interest among legislators and ordinary citizens.

"Some of these policies had been in place for 150 years, and no one had ever looked at them," he recalls. "Some struck people as extreme, like a lifetime ban for one offense committed at age 18." Reform attracted the support of the conservative Prison Fellowship, as well as the American Correctional Association.

Eventually, all this made a difference in policy. In a period of often bitter divisions, we have a rare case of simple good sense overcoming partisan impulses. "Sometimes," says Mauer, "politicians do things for the right reasons."

Steve Chapman

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

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