Thursday, October 17, 2013

Could 2016 GOP presidential primary give life to debate over ex-felon disenfranchisement?

Felon-disenfranchisementLast month, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) made headlines when he announced his support for extending the franchise to ex-felons. Rand's announcement came just months after Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) announced that he sought to extend the franchise to as many as 100,000 ex-felons. According to McDonnell, "For past offenders, our goal is to grant civil rights back to as many as possible. This is the right thing to do for all Virginians to help make the commonwealth a safer and better place."

Support for easing restrictions on ex-felons' right to vote appears be gaining momentum with some members of the GOP, and this support could play an interesting role come 2016.

While ex-felons' right to vote currently is left to the states, presidential primaries often bring forth issues that speak to the moral sentiments of the people of a state. 

In 2012, for example, a super-PAC supporting former-Gov. Mitt Romeny (R-MA) aired an attack ad in South Carolina against former-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) for his support of a bill that would have extended the right to vote to ex-felons. The subject of the ad led to an exchange between the two candidates durin a debate the week before the South Carolina primary, in which Santorum reaffirmed that his commitment to "restore voting rights" to ex-felons. Romney objected, saying, "I don't think people who have committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again. That's my own view." 

Similar exchanges might be expected in future election seasons.

Among those believed to be considering a run in 2016, Rand and McDonnell (although his chances might be dwindling) are not alone in their efforts to change existing policies. In 2004, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) eased restrictions on ex-felons' right to vote, which extended the franchise to 152,000 ex-felons; and, in 2008, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) signed a bill that required the state to provide ex-felons with instructions for reclaiming the right to vote.

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Govs. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Scott Walker (R-WI) are also considered to be among those potentially seeking the 2016 Republican nomination, but apparently none of these men has stated an opinion on the issue.

Of course, the issue might be shirked by candidates hesistant to come out too strongly. "It should be left to the states," they might say.

But, many Republicans believe the next crop of presidential hopefuls will be crowded at the top. During lengthy primary campaigns, distinctions become stale and the candidates will have to look for new lines of attack.  As in 2012, the restoration of voting rights to ex-felons might be an issue that candidates exploit.

And who knows, in a crowded field where each vote counts, one's position on the issue just might swing enough votes to matter. 

Supporters of extending the franchise to ex-felons ought to be excited about this prospect. 

Update: The Republican challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also come out in support of reinstating voting rights for ex-felons.

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