Gov. Mike Parson is right to express caution about a bill to grant voting rights to felons still on parole or probation. His office says it would be “premature” to take sides on a bill by state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, to grant voting rights to such offenders. Nasheed’s bill is no doubt well-meaning, but the assessment by Parson’s office is correct at least until Missouri voters have had a chance to weigh in.
Current Missouri law restores voting rights to felons once they’ve completed the full term of their sentences. That law makes perfect sense, as we’ve long argued, because once ex-offenders have paid their debt to society, there is no justification to continue denying them democracy’s most basic right.
If an offender remains on probation or parole, that by definition means the sentence is still in the process of being completed. The debt to society technically remains unfulfilled. The question is whether a person deemed safe enough to mingle with the rest of society is also someone worthy of casting a ballot in an election.
As the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reports, Nasheed originally had sought to have her bill apply to all felons on probation or parole. She amended it to apply only to nonviolent felons.
Another measure before the Legislature would put the question to all Missouri voters in a statewide referendum, resulting in a possible change to the Missouri Constitution. Asking voters to decide is a smarter approach, since it’s the general electorate being asked to make room for this additional voting sector. Let voters decide if the time is right for this step.
At least 16 states have passed laws permitting the restoration of voting rights to felons after they leave prison. Two states allow people still behind bars to vote, an idea that other states have correctly kept at arm’s length. But considering that millions of prisoners across the country are disenfranchised as long as they remain behind bars, the denial of voting rights means the silencing of a potentially powerful, election-swaying bloc of voters.
More than three-quarters of the 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole were convicted of nonviolent offenses, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported, including an estimated 52,000 offenders in Missouri. Several states have extended voting rights to offenders on parole or probation, but the GOP-dominated Missouri Legislature has long been reluctant to go that far, even when fellow Republicans have backed measures to let them vote.
The possibility of having their voting rights restored should serve as one additional incentive for offenders to complete their full sentences and prove that they can fully reintegrate themselves into society. The Legislature should let voters decide if now is the time to take that additional step.
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