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There’s a right way to restore felons’ voting rights

So democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to give all prisoners the right to vote. He said so during a recent campaign speech, much to the surprise of many. I was among them.

Sanders believes “the right to vote is inherent to our democracy” and even “terrible people” like the Boston Marathon bomber should be allowed to participate. No other Democratic candidate has gotten behind this idea, although several have said they support returning the right to vote to convicts after their release.

It is up to individual states to decide who can and cannot vote. In some states, convicted felons are never allowed to vote again. Other states require the newly released ex-con to apply for reinstatement to the voting rolls. Some make the applicant wait until after their probation and/or parole is complete. Currently, only two states allow felons to cast ballots from behind bars, Sanders’ home state of Vermont and the neighboring state of Maine.

Am I the only one who sees a potential risk in Sander’s idea? Let’s think this through by looking at the federal prison system as a snapshot. Currently, more than 45% of those incarcerated, in excess of 76,000 inmates, are held on drug-related crimes. If they were suddenly given the right to vote, would they be casting a ballot for the betterment of the country or in their own criminal self-interest? Don’t you think it would be likely that they would vote for the candidate they perceived as being softest on drugs and, maybe, soft on crime in general? More than 18% of federal inmates, more than 31,000, were convicted on gun, explosive or arson charges. Wouldn’t it stand to reason they would vote for candidates who campaigned against more gun laws? Is this really what we want?

I think when someone is convicted of breaking the law of the land, they cannot be trusted to vote for those who make the laws of the land. And besides that, think about the logistics involved in allowing incarcerated persons to vote. How would it work to accommodate the more than two million people who now reside in federal, state, local, military and Indian Country lock-ups? To be accurate, the majority of people held in local jails at any given time have not yet gone to trial, so they might still be able to vote via absentee ballot. It would be inconceivable to haul voting machines in and out of all the nation’s jails and prisons. So, a monumental and costly process would have to be designed to get the right ballot to the right inmate at the right time.

Would convicts get to vote in state contests where they last held residency, or in the state in which they are incarcerated? And how would they educate themselves on what the candidates stand for? Will political parties be allowed to send lobbyists into prisons to stump for their candidates? And, finally, if the inmate has been convicted of crimes against the state or espionage against the nation, should they still be allowed to participate in our most sacred civil exercise?

Those who support Sanders’ idea are quick to remind (us) that many other countries allow their prisoners to vote, including Canada, South Africa and Kenya. In Europe, prisoners in 26 countries have their voting rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. In Ukraine, voter education programs are offered to inmates so they can learn about the candidate’s policy platforms.

Aubrey Menarndt says America has it all wrong. She is an international elections monitor who has traveled the globe to observe how elections are conducted in other countries. Menarndt says she once watched election officials in the Republic of Georgia build “a makeshift bridge over a stream to reach the remote farm home of an elderly homebound voter.” That’s a touching story about the sanctity of every single vote, but I’m betting that elderly voter never murdered, raped or planted a bomb that killed innocent people.

Look, I’m not a person without empathy. I believe once a convict serves his or her time and assimilates safely back into society, he or she should be granted the right to vote again. Absolutely.

The United States went on an incarceration binge the past few decades and the result is that more than 6 million Americans carry a current or former felony conviction on their record. To keep them at arm’s length from the electoral process isn’t fair or productive. They should be welcomed back into society and given every opportunity to better their lives. They already carry the burden of their convictions, and the discrimination in housing, employment and social status that goes along with that. They should not be ostracized forever, but rather greeted with restoration of the most important civic gift of all – the right to vote. It benefits us all to help restore ex-cons to full tax-paying status.; email to