Should Felons Get Their Voting Rights Restored?

Many states, Cardin said, “are slowly moving to repeal or loosen many of these barriers to voting for ex-prisoners.”

“This legislation is ultimately designed to reduce recidivism rates and help reintegrate ex-prisoners back into society,” Cardin said. “When prisoners are released, they are expected to obey the law, get a job and pay taxes as they are rehabilitated and reintegrated into their community. With these responsibilities and obligations of citizenship should also come the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.”

Proponents also maintain disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities. About 8 percent of the African-American population – more than 2 million people -- are disenfranchised. Given current rates of incarceration, approximately one-third of the next generation of African-American men will be barred from voting at some point during their lifetimes. Currently, one of every 13 African-Americans are rendered unable to vote because of felony convictions.

A significant portion of the Latino population also faces disenfranchisement. If current incarceration trends hold, 17 percent of Latino men will be incarcerated during their lifetimes, in contrast to less than 6 percent of non-Latino white men.

“These states that are denying voting rights to ex-offenders represents a vestige from a time when suffrage was denied to whole classes of the American population,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, who has filed legislation in the lower chamber identical to the Cardin bill. “Just like literacy tests and poll taxes prevented an entire class of citizens -- namely African Americans -- from integrating into society after centuries of slavery, ex-felon disenfranchisement laws prevent people from reintegrating into society after they have served their time in prison. It is long overdue that these restrictions be relegated to the dustbin of history.”

Paul, who is seeking to strengthen ties between the Republican Party and an African-American community that regularly throws 90 percent of its vote at Democrats, noted that “when you look at who is being deprived of voting they are disproportionately people of color.”

"Kids do make mistakes,” he said. “White kids make mistakes. Black kids make mistakes. Brown kids make mistakes. But when you look at the prison population, three out of the four people in prison are black or brown."

Cardin said Congress has a responsibility to enact a nationwide standard for restoration of voting rights, citing “the racial disparities in our judicial system.”

“When prisoners are released, they are expected to obey the law, get a job and pay taxes as they seek a fair shot at being rehabilitated and reintegrated into their community,” Cardin said. “Along with these responsibilities and obligations of citizenship should be the right to vote.”