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Published Thursday, February 16, 2006, in Baltimore Sun

The criminal constituency

By John R. Lott, Jr.*

WASHINGTON -- If you can't win elections, change the rules.

Despite warnings from people such as the chairman of Maryland's State Board of Elections that the new rules are inviting voter fraud, the General Assembly has pushed through regulations weakening safeguards on provisional ballots, absentee ballots and a long early voting period.

Not satisfied, the legislature now wants to make it easier for convicted murderers, rapists, armed robbers and other violent criminals to vote. Overall, 150,000 felons would be eligible.

When asked if the felon voting bill was motivated to defeat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s re-election bid this year, Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, replied, "Of course that's the reason."

The power to deny voting rights to convicts now rests with the states, so standards vary across the country. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution explicitly allows for states to deny felons the right to vote.

Maryland Democrats are not alone in wanting to let felons vote. Last year, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John Kerry introduced the Count Every Vote Act, which would restore voting rights to felons who had completed their prison terms, parole or probation.

Maryland Democrats are proposing even more liberal rules and would allow any convict who is not imprisoned or waiting to serve a prison sentence to cast a ballot. Similar legislation is being pushed in other states.

Democrats have a good reason to want convicts to vote: Felons overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.

In recent academic work, Jeff Manza and Marcus Britton of Northwestern University and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota estimated that Bill Clinton pulled 86 percent of the felon vote in 1992 and a whopping 93 percent in 1996.

The researchers found that about one-third of felons vote when given the chance. So if all 150,000 eligible Maryland felons are re-enfranchised, about 50,000 will cast ballots, and Democrats will pick up a net gain of 40,000 votes. Mr. Ehrlich still would have won in 2002, but his margin would have been cut by almost two-thirds.

At the national level, the study's results indicate that the felon vote would have given Democrats the White House in 2000 and control of the Senate from 1986 to 2004.

Felons voting for liberals is not just something we see in the United States. The Canadian Liberal Party recently passed legislation letting criminals vote while they are still in prison. Before the most recent election, a Canadian TV reporter said he went "from cell to cell, [where] prisoner after prisoner told [the reporter] they were voting Liberal, with no exceptions."

But why shouldn't felons be able to vote if they have paid their debt to society?

It is hardly a radical notion to penalize felons long after they have left prison or completed parole. Laws deny cons the right to hold office, to retain professional licenses (lawyers, for example, lose their ability to practice) or business licenses, to work for the government, or to serve as an officer in a publicly traded company. In some cases, felons can lose their right to inherit property, to collect pension benefits or even to get a truck-driving license. In fact, in most states, the loss of voting rights does not last as long as other prohibitions.

Post-sentence penalties are placed not only on criminals who have committed felonies, but also on those who have committed misdemeanors. This includes, under federal law, the right to own a gun. It's doubtful that Maryland or national Democrats will be crusading to restore that right any time soon.

My guess is that most felons care more about getting good jobs than they do about the right to vote.

There are important reasons for banning felons, particularly violent ones, from voting. When people harm others, we learn something about them. Do we want someone who has committed multiple rapes helping determine how much money will be spent on social programs that help rape victims? Do we want convicted child molesters or murderers voting to determine what police budgets will be?

Democrats appear to be angling not for the votes of centrists but for the votes of the most dedicated left-wing constituency in America: criminals.

Do most Americans really believe that felons constitute a minority group that deserves such special favors?

*John R. Lott Jr. is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His e-mail is jlott@aei.org.

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