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No Ballot Initiative

Felons may shrug at anti-felon voting law

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Since 1996, nine states -- mostly in the South -- have liberalized laws that disenfranchise felons. As a result, over half a million new voters have been added to the nation's voting rolls.

And then we have Pennsylvania, where legislators are seeking to achieve the exact opposite. Under the provisions of House Bill 1318, ex-convicts who have "paid their debt to society," as they say, would be prohibited from voting until they have also completed their parole. In other words, ex-cons won't be able to vote until their sentences are over -- even if they've behaved well enough in prison to get out early on parole.

At first blush, this would seem to be nothing more than a bunch of political hacks from the red part of the state doing their best to make all of Pennsylvania a red state, and maybe even protect Rick Santorum's ass -- I mean seat -- in the process. And why not? Purging the voter rolls of felons worked so well for the Bush/Cheney ticket in Florida in 2000, why not try it here? Several thousand black, mostly Democratic, voters were purged from voter-registration lists, many of them improperly ("Sorry, pal, but it says right here: 'William Johnson'"). Florida was eventually awarded to Bush by a mere 500 votes and change.

A closer look at the rest of HB 1318 -- especially its ID requirements and the procedures for handling challenged ballots -- does little to dispel the notion that the aim of the bill is to keep the poor and/or black from voting.

There has been vocal opposition to this legislation from all of the expected sources. Locally, this opposition has come from the Black Political Empowerment Project. And of course, the usual suspects are lined up on the other side. Regardless, I expect that this bill will eventually become law. The Supreme Court has already given the green light: In November they refused to hear a challenge to the Florida law. Besides, with the possible exception of suicide bombers, no group invokes less sympathy than ex-cons. Imposing more punishment on the convicted is always a safe issue. Who cares if convicted felons vote?

Not the ex-cons themselves. The formerly convicted vote at a rate of about 25 percent, miserable by even the low standards of American democracy. Most of us didn't vote before we were convicted, busy as we were with thinking of ways to break the law. And a tour of the correctional system is not the best way to convince someone that he will get a square deal by participating in the system.

The odds are overwhelming that someone in prison is there for a violation of the drug laws. Morality aside -- and morality often gets kicked to the curb in politics -- that means that the vast majority of felons were convicted of doing something that wouldn't be illegal if they had their way.

According to the results of a survey just released by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 22 percent of Americans said that they used marijuana. That is a substantial minority by any measure. Yet, in a country where protection of minority rights is imbedded in the Constitution, this private, non-violent, victimless act is illegal. And it will continue to be illegal even if every ex-convict in the country could vote next November.

The marijuana thing is just an example. The list of issues where ex-cons find themselves on the losing side of the argument is substantial. No one represents our interests, nor are they likely to in the future. So why vote?

I do not wish to suggest that all ex-cons go through a cost/benefit analysis every election day. (God knows I didn't, or I wouldn't have voted.) It's just that most of us share a gut feeling that there is nothing in it for us. Whether we vote or not, and regardless of who gets elected, somebody is going to be telling us what to do. And if we do vote, that person is going to have the temerity to tell us that our voices were heard.

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