By Alexander Bolton - 03/01/14 12:00 PM EST
Attorney General Eric Holder’s call to restore voting rights to felons after they’ve served their time in prison has split Senate Democrats.
Liberal Democrats who are not facing tough re-elections this year say it’s the right thing to do, but vulnerable incumbents are steering clear of the proposal.
Political experts say barring ex-felons from voting impacts African Americans disproportionately.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who faces a competitive challenge from former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, is torn over the idea.
Warner supports restoring voting rights to non-violent ex-felons but he’s not sure it’s a good idea to automatically enfranchise former violent felons.
“I would absolutely support [restoring rights to] non-violent felons,” said Warner. “On violent — what I want to do is look at it.”
Warner suggested imposing a higher threshold for violent ex-felons to regain voting rights.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said it would be politically risky for Warner to embrace the automatic renewal of rights for all ex-felons.
“Why should Warner endorse it? It’s not going to pass,” he said. “There would be an upside if somehow he could wave a magic wand and get all the rights restored because disproportionately these people are African American and therefore they would almost certainly vote Democratic.”
An analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 7.3 percent of the voting-age population in Virginia is disenfranchised.
“The downside is that it would re-enforce the view Republicans are pushing in the state that Mark Warner is no centrist, he’s just another Obama Democrat, quote unquote, that’s their line,” Sabato said.
Under then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, Virginia restored voting rights to ex-felons who had not committed serious crimes. Those with more serious criminal records were required to apply to the state for the ability to vote.
“McDonnell was more liberal than Warner and Kaine but especially Warner on rights restoration, the numbers prove it,” Sabato added, in reference to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who previously served as governor.
Warner served as Virginia governor from 2002 to 2006.
The issue is heating up in the Senate.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) plans to introduce legislation soon that would restore voting rights to felons as soon as they are released from prison.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is working on a bill that would restore rights to non-violent offenders who have served their time behind bars.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who may face a difficult race if former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) challenges her, declined to comment on Holder’s or Cardin’s proposals.
“I would need to look at the legislation,” said Shaheen, as an aide quickly ushered her into an elevator in the Capitol.
The issue is largely moot for New Hampshire, which restores voting rights after release from prison. But siding with Holder, who has become a bogeyman among conservatives, would be dangerous.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), whose re-election became significantly tougher when Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) announced a Senate bid this week, referred questions about ex-felons voting rights to his press office.
His spokesman did not respond to follow-up calls and e-mails.
Almost 1 percent of the voting population in Colorado is disenfranchised, according to Pew. Ex-felons may vote in Colorado after release from prison and discharge from probation.
The offices of Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) declined to respond to questions about proposals to restore voting rights to ex-felons.
Jean Smith, a member of Arkansas-CURE, which stands for Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, lamented what she sees as Pryor’s lack of courage on the issue.
“To my knowledge he has not addressed it,” she said.
“What he’s trying to do is play both sides of the fence,” she added. “He doesn’t want to take on anything that’s too controversial because he’s not very popular.”
Three percent of the voting-age population is disenfranchised in Arkansas, where voting rights are restored after the completion of prison, parole and probation, including fines.
“The discrepancy in this state is that if you have outstanding fines then you are considered not having met all your obligations,” said Smith. “Those of means will get their voting rights before someone without means. That’s the unfairness.”
A spokesman for Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat running for Senate in Kentucky, said Grimes supports restoring voting rights to ex-felons. All people with felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised in Kentucky, where 7.4 percent of the voting-age population cannot vote.
Other Senate Democrats have enthusiastically endorsed Holder’s recommendation.
“Except in the rarest circumstances, after they’ve paid their price to society they ought to be participants in our electoral system,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.). “I think it’s a move in the right direction.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who survived a competitive race in 2012, endorsed Holder’s and Cardin’s efforts.
“If you committed a felony but are out of prison, you can vote in Ohio,” he said. “I’m fine with that.”