In American society, we are defined by our rights. Chief among those much-touted rights is our ability to vote.
Describing the American voter of his day, humorist Mark Twain said, "He need not know anything whatever; he may be wholly useless and a cumberer of the earth; he may even be known to be a consummate scoundrel. No matter. While he can steer clear of the penitentiary his vote is as weighty as the vote of a president, a bishop, a college professor, a merchant prince."
And what happens when he can't "steer clear of the penitentiary?" When such a transgression occurs, one of our most precious American rights goes the way of Halley's comet -- out of sight and unlikely to return any time soon.
It's a just response.
When a person commits a crime, that person deserves punishment. The severity of the crime lends itself to the severity of the punishment (at least it's supposed to). Those at the bottom of this heap of humanity (murderers, rapists and kidnappers, to name a few) are labeled with the Scarlet Letter ... "F" for "felon."
One of the collateral consequences of earning a felony charge is the loss of voting rights.
In Kansas, current laws deny the right to vote to felons on probation, in prison or under parole supervision. The right to vote is restored upon completion of the terms of the conviction. Such is the case throughout much of the country, although in 11 states a felony conviction can result in a lifetime voting ban.
But one state with voting restrictions similar to those of Kansas may be headed for a big change.
On Election Day this November, Rhode Island voters will consider a constitutional amendment that would expand voting rights for felons -- allowing them to vote upon release from prison, eliminating the requirements that they complete probation and parole first.
To some, successful passage of the amendment will aid felons with their re-entry into society and reverse undue disenfranchisement of voting rights. For many others, however, such a move would allow felons to bypass a portion of their punishment -- regaining rights before repaying their debt to society. (It's worth noting that two states -- Maine and Vermont -- actually allow inmates still in prison to vote.)
According to the Sentencing Project, a reform advocacy group that supports voting rights for felons, 5.3 million Americans will be unable to vote on Nov. 7 because of laws affecting felons. About 1.4 million are in prison -- the rest have been released.
At issue is whether we care.
Do felons deserve the right to vote before they finish their sentences? Do certain kinds of criminals ever deserve to regain their voting rights?
Complicating the debate is the matter of race. The Sentencing Project claims that roughly 1 in 12 African-Americans were prevented from voting in 2004 because of felony convictions. The rate is nearly five times that of non-blacks. The advocacy group, along with other supporters of reform, say that the denial of voting rights to felons amounts to modern-day disenfranchisement based on race -- a practice they believe was invented after the Civil War to intentionally undermine the vote of newly-freed blacks.
Today, many reform advocates say, Republicans aim to continue the disenfranchisement because of GOP fears that felons -- black felons at least -- will vote for Democrats in the mid-term and looming presidential elections. It's simple math: more black felons means fewer black voters.
The race card always makes for such enlightened political debate, doesn't it?
In truth, the denial of felons' voting rights is in no way on par with the injustices of the Jim Crow era, as many would like us to believe. Heck, it's not even on the same level as the argument over the right to gay marriage. This is an issue of punishment versus undeserved, unearned leniency.
If, as Americans, we are defined by our rights, we also are defined by the rights we lack. A law-abiding American has the right to vote. A serious offender does not. Are felons and their fellow neighbors equal in our society? Absolutely not. Otherwise, we wouldn't even have the power to imprison felons, denying them their right to freedom until punishment is complete.
Losing sight of what makes us different lumps the felon in with the president, the bishop, the college professor and the rest of us -- all fallible characters for sure, but not necessarily criminals.