Terry McAteer: Attention felons, go to Maine to vote
One in 12 American adults have committed at least one felony crime in their life. This computes to over 20 million Americans who have been convicted of a felony.
I must admit that I don’t often think about felons and their rights, but recently Florida voted to restore voting rights for felons who have served their sentence.
Somewhere I had always thought that if you served your sentence for a crime and “paid your debt to society” that you regained all of your rights of full citizenship. Amazingly, that is not the case in nine states where felons are never allowed to vote again. This just seems un-American where after serving your time in prison you’d never be able to vote again. A felony DUI for a 22 year old in Iowa takes away voting rights for the rest of his or her life.
Conversely, if you commit a felony in Maine or Vermont you never lose the right to vote and even have a polling place in the county jail. It seems that California has staked claim to the middle ground where after serving your time, you again have the right to vote.
Actually, the concept of “civil death,” that being the loss of voting rights, has been around for centuries. Greek and Roman laws which stipulated “civil death” were passed onto British Common Law that called for the disenfranchisement of convicted felons for life. The concept was that a felon had committed a crime against society and, therefore, was committing “civil death” toward their rights as a citizen.
The real question which has been debated for centuries is whether the act of voting is a right or a privilege. Our Constitution uses the term “right to vote” five times throughout the document and never uses the word privilege. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution uses the verbiage, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged…” But as Americans, we also believe that voting is a privilege of citizenship. How do we reconcile this dilemma of felons and voting when the Constitution says “the right to vote” and the states have made it a privilege? The answer lies in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution which allows states to take the lead on things which the Constitution does not specifically address — like the requirements to vote.
States are in charge of determining the voting qualifications while the federal government has no say in that area. This is why many states have varying requirements for voting such as showing an ID as a means to prove identity. The only time the federal government and U.S. courts have involved themselves is when poll taxes or literacy tests were imposed which were directed at a single voting group. Therefore, the Constitution believes it is our right to vote but states can determine the qualifications of that right.
While our Founding Fathers developed our system of states’ rights, and by the 10th Amendment codified those powers to the states, it would appear that the overarching principle of citizenship should not be so different between Maine and Iowa.
I never before realized that states could further define the parameters of citizenship for felons in such widely varying degrees. I thought I was a citizen of the United States not a citizen of a particular state and the same rights of citizenship crossed state boundaries; evidently, not so.
As an afterthought, maybe it’s best to commit your next felony in Maine and not in Iowa!
Terry McAteer is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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