Voter Fairness Must Include Forgiveness


Mercedies Harris

I bet it must be a bitch to have to live with the tag 'felon' for the rest of your life. I think the classification of what constitutes a felony is quite vast, and something maybe need to be adjusted. Or maybe our classifications of crimes needs an overhaul. As an example. Murder, rape, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, easily those are felonies.

Possession of marijuana, tax evasion, possessing stolen property, even viewing of child pornography are all bad. They're all wrong. But do your penance, do your time and when you get out, you should be free to continue living. These are generally non-violent crimes. Yet commit any of these and in some states you're prohibited from voting. Yup, that's right. You're no longer allowed to help chose who represents you. Why? And if you can answer that, then question why some states allow it, and others don't. Some have a waiting period and some allow you to vote immediately.

Here is the case of Mercedies Harris, as covered The American Prospect this week.

Mercedies Harris was 27 in 1990, when he was arrested for drug possession and distribution in Fairfax, Virginia. Harris had served in the Marines, but the death of his brother in 1986—killed by a hit-and-run driver—sent him down a familiar path. “I was angry and I couldn’t find the guy who did it,” Harris says. “I got into drugs to find a way to medicate myself.”

He did his time and then was released. Non-violent offense. But he's a felon. Admitting his past indiscretion and his criminal conviction, he found it hard to find housing, a job, even getting a drivers license.

But he found one obstacle that was especially difficult to overcome: He couldn't vote. Virginia is one of four states—along with Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky—that strip voting rights from felons for life for all felons.

Seven states—Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and Wyoming—have lifetime bans for particular crimes or repeat felony offenders.

In Virginia alone, 450,000 residents are disenfranchised. In Florida, the total is an astonishing 1.5 million. (These and several other numbers in this article were gathered from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.)

So this is actually large numbers we're talking about, and in just two states. By conservative estimate,

More than five million Americans are currently disenfranchised because of felony convictions.

This idea that a lifetime ban for felons to vote makes the U.S. the only country in the world to prohibit permanent voting disenfranchisement.

As I've said before, but we're not talking about a small effective pool of people. We're talking about your next door neighbor, your barber, your cab driver or you car mechanic. You trust them with your safety and your possessions. Can't we trust them with their vote?