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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Felons and the Franchise

by folkbum

Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus wins folkbum's 33rd annual worst analogy award* for this one:
So why on Earth would we trust felons still serving a sentence to take part in our democratic process - to make important decisions that influence how law-abiding citizens live their lives? It's akin to allowing your 2-year-old to choose the dinner meal. If that happened, surely M&Ms and cookies would be on the menu every night.
(* After creating the award, I post-facto gave myself the first 32. If you've read my blog before, you know why.)

As I am neither a felon nor the parent of a two-year-old, I'm not entirely sure how offensively stupid this is. But I bet it's way up there.

Priebus is responding to the question of whether "on-paper" but out-of-jail felons ought to be allowed to vote. His op-ed, all 600 words, can be summed up by that paragraph. Felons, like cookie-grubbing toddlers at dinner, forfeited their right to participate in society and Oh! My! God! can you imagine the consequences if we let them vote!

Priebus somehow imagines that an "on-paper" felon will vote for . . . hell, I don't know. Who, exactly, is the candidate equivalent of M&Ms and milk? And why does Priebus think that a felon who is "on-paper" one day and "off-paper" the next would suddenly change his vote to the green beans and broccoli candidate?

There is a big reason why giving felons back the franchise once they're out and able to participate in most of society's trappings again is a Good Thing, which I'll get to in a minute. Suggesting they have the decision-making skills of a two-year-old--or, worse, suggesting that candidates will start winning elections by pandering to the felon vote ("More time in the yard and a shiv in every bunk!")--is insulting.

FrontPage Milwaukeean Rebecca Kontowicz has been apprenticing with several of Southeast Wisconsin's nuttiest wingnuts, and in an FPM op-ed on the same subject, she shows off what she's learned so far. Speaking of one felon--Kimberly Prude, who has become something of a poster-granny for felons caught voting--Kontowicz writes (all emphasis hers),
The thing is, the [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel] editorial completely fails to mention what made this sweet little grandma a felon in the first place. Obviously, it was enough to land her behind bars. That tells you she’s not a responsible citizen, who has failed to abide by the law. Why should she have the right to play a part in determining the people who govern those laws?

Common sense: It’s not in the best interest of society to have thieves and rapists doing so, even if they are out of prison.
I don't think the Journal Sentinel has erred in trying to put a face on the felon disenfranchisement problem. Every felon who is barred from voting, though the polling place may be just a few walkable blocks away, is a real person who, as Prude did, may have a real interest in changing (or maintaining) the status quo. Every felon who faces arrest and a return to prison for voting(!) is someone's son, father, mother, daughter, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, neighbor, and so on--and ought to be encouraged to take an interest again in the welfare of all those whom they are connected to by blood or geography.

Would it have made a difference to Kontowicz were the human face white? male? a non-violent drug offender? Kontowicz's age? I don't know. But Kontowicz suggests that simply because one was once a thief, or a rapist, or a drug addict like Prude, one remains too irresponsible to vote until a status that exists only on paper changes. I have to ask Kontowicz: If Prude had gone "off-paper" the day before she cast her absentee ballot, would she suddenly have been "a responsible citizen"? What about the "paper" status determines Prude's status as a "responsible citizen"? And is that a determination that ought to be Kontowicz's to make?

Kontowicz here is making Priebus's M&Ms and cookies argument, just with more bad writing and less candy.

But she goes on to demonstrate that she really has learned from the wingnut masters:
The editorial goes on to explain that, “Non-voters with prior arrests are more than twice as likely as their voting counterparts to be arrested again, research shows.”

Research shows? What research? Could you please provide the name of a source or at least the research group that conducted this study? That way people can determine whether this “research” is credible or if the study may have been – God forbid – biased.
In a classic example of blowing smoke, Kontowicz besmears the editors for not pointing to any specific study. But if we read the editorial itself (Kontowicz hasn't yet picked up one of her mentors' habit of not linking to source material), we see that the Journal Sentinel is relying on the Sentencing Project for their information. Even if she didn't want to bother to google them up, she could have done her own search to see what studies were out there. I know it may not be a staple of many of the wingnutty blogs Kontowicz is modeling herself after, but one thing good commentators do is try to find evidence. If you think the Journal Sentinel is wrong, Rebecca, then prove them wrong. Waving and flapping your arms doesn't do what you think it does.

But what happens when you google up voting felons recidivism? You get a whole bunch of studies showing exactly what the editors claim: Criminals who vote after having been released from prison are indeed less likely to recommit. Take this one (.pdf), for example:
[A] relationship between voting and subsequent crime and arrest is not only plausible, but also supported by empirical evidence. We find consistent differences between voters and non-voters in rates of subsequent arrest, incarceration, and self-reported criminal behavior. [. . .] At a minimum, our multivariate analysis suggests that the political participation effect is not entirely attributable to preexisting differences between voters and non-voters in criminal history, class, race, or gender. [. . .]

Voting appears to be part of a package of pro-social behavior that is linked to distance from crime.
The lead author on that study has done others:
Our event history analysis shows that felons who voted in the previous biennial election have a far lower risk of recidivism than non-voting felons, and that this relationship holds net of age, race, gender, marital status, and criminal history.
(He also blogs.)

I know they have computers at UWM--I would even bet Rebecca Kontowicz typed her op-ed on one. It's not hard to find these things out, and with even cursory research she would find that not only are those editors right, her insistence that these could-be voters are irresponsible is in itself an irresponsible claim to make. Denying someone access to the democratic process would be like denying them access to their families, a job, education, and other tools they need to re-integrate into society. You may as well start telling felons--"on-paper" or off--where to live, whom to associate with, what kind of license plate to use--oh . . . wait.

There's nothing like telling someone we want them to be productive members of society again and then doing everything we can to isolate them from that society. These men and women are not two-year-olds. There is nothing magical about the piece of paper that would cause them to vote any more or less responsibly. There is ample reason to suggest that allowing them to vote would help reduce recidivism and cut costs to the electoral system. At the very least Republicans ought to support restoring the franchise so that Steve Biskupic could be free to pursue more corruption cases against Democrats. Right? Right?

It's time to do this. If you're out of jail, you should be allowed to vote. It's that simple.

(hat tip to Nick on the license plate)

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