North Carolinas Republican lawmakers are now exploring a new way to take the state backward: Impose a five-year waiting period before felons who have served their time can get back their right to vote.
And theres more. After waiting five years, they would need to present affidavits from two registered voters attesting to their upstanding moral character and get the unanimous approval of their local board of elections.
This is another pound-the-marginalized bill that reflects a meaness common to many bills offered by Republicans flexing their newfound legislative muscle. This one has the additional negatives of being politically self-aggrandizing and un-American.
In a state where felons are disproportionately black, the proposed change would disproportionately bar blacks from the polls. Thats not a bad thing if youre a Republican politician since blacks overwhemingly vote Democratic. But its a bad thing if you believe that the Department of Corrections should help people correct their lives and resume their roles as fully engaged citizens. And its a terrible thing if you believe in one of the Americas most profound rights a right particularly cherished by African Americans whose history includes slavery, segregation and Jim Crow.
The five-year waiting period is part of a Senate voter ID bill whose primary sponsor is Sen. E.S. Buck Newton of Wilson. He thinks its generous. The long and the short of it is the vast majority of people I have spoken to regarding election laws think felons should not be able to vote at all, he says.
We wonder who he talks to. Certainly not blacks. Certainly not people trying to right their lives after a felony conviction, a conviction that is many cases involves a nonviolent crime linked to drug addiction.
The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates for fairness in sentencing, reports that in 2010 in North Carolina there were 82,432 people barred from voting due to a felony conviction. Of that number, more than half 43,621 were black. Its obvious who this change would effect and its obvious why. President Obama won North Carolina by fewer than 14,000 votes in 2008 thanks to a huge turnout by blacks. Their votes can loom even larger in local and state elections.
Extending disenfranchisment is a cynical approach to politics and a callous approach toward citizens. What makes it particularly offensive here is that North Carolina has not abused the practice. In Florida, for instance, 23 percent of blacks are barred from voting because of felony disenfranchisement. In Kentucky, its 22 percent. In Virgina, 20 percent. But in North Carolina its only 2.8 percent.
That relatively low percentage Maine and Vermont are the only states that dont disenfranchise felons demonstrates North Carolinas commitment to the right to vote. Increasing the percentage with waiting periods and other hurdles would signal a retreat from that commitment.