Holder Seeks To Restore Voting Rights For Felons; Many of Whom Are Disenfranchised Black Men

Attorney General Eric Holder is calling on states to restore voting rights to felons following their release from prison. In a speech on criminal justice reform at Georgetown University today, Holder called voting restrictions on former felons "unnecessary and unjust," arguing that they actually increase rates of recidivism by continuing to isolate and stigmatize former prisoners. "It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision," Holder said.

Holder does not have the authority to compel states to change their laws on felons' right to vote, but his attention to the issue may drive state legislators to revisit these laws. He has already had some similar success with curbing mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.

In his speech, Holder quoted figures that an estimated 5.8 million Americans are currently disenfranchised because of current or previous felony convictions. Approximately 38 percent of those disenfranchised people are black.

Holder dated felony disenfranchisement back to the nineteenth century, when such measures were used to quell the voting powers of African Americans, especially in the South, where 90 percent of the prison population was black.


"The impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable," Holder said. According to the Justice Department, there are currently 11 states that have strict restrictions on voting rights for felons, even after they have served their sentence in a correctional facility and are no longer on parole. As part of a series on poverty and democracy in the US, the Atlantic explores the issue of whether felons should be able to reclaim the right to vote. It notes:

America's prison population has doubled in the past 20 years — despite a decline in crime rates. This shocking figure, coupled with the news that most correctional facilities are running at 136 percent capacity, has helped bring prison reform to the forefront in Congress, with both Democrats and Republicans alike campaigning for system overhaul.

On the issue of felon disenfranchisement, Holder's position is strongly supported by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul. In a speech in Louisville last September, he said restoring the right to vote "dwarfs all other" election-related issues.

With Paul expected to make a bid for the Republican nomination in 2016, there's a very good chance that this could become a hot-button issue for the next election.

Image: Orange Is The New Black/Netflix