Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, wants states to roll back laws that prevent people who have been convicted of a felony from voting.
Speaking this week at Georgetown University Law Center, Holder called the restrictions "unnecessary, unjust and counterproductive."
"It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values. These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed," he said.
"By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, the laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes," Holder told the conference Feb. 11.
Of course, Holder's statement is more symbolic than anything. The federal government has no power to force states' hands on the subject of restoring voting rights to felons. And, even less so with the June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Shelby County, Ala. v. Eric Holder that nullified much of the USDOJ's power to block discriminatory state voting laws.
The effect of the ruling was that states, such as Mississippi, that had proposed such controversial regulations as voter-ID requirements could implement those changes. Under the guidance of Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Mississippi moved forward and literature Hosemann's office has started distributing announcing the official start of voter ID for the June congressional primaries.
Voter ID was, and remains, a political hot potato. In all likelihood, restoring voting rights to convicted felons would garner significantly less political support, perhaps even from some of the advocates who opposed voter ID.
This is a particularly complex issue for Mississippi. Not only was Mississippi included among the states required to get "pre-clearance," or federal approval of each and every change to its voting changes—everything from moving polling places to redistricting—but Mississippi also has the nation's second-highest incarceration rate, behind neighboring Louisiana.
Holder, the first African American federal AG serving under the nation's first black president, commented on the link between incarceration and voting, pointing out that the practice of felon disenfranchisement dates back to the 19th century and was designed to keep African Americans from participating in the political process.
"Although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable," Holder said.
Recently, Hosemann and Gov. Phil Bryant proclaimed February as Voter Registration Month.
Bryant called voting "our most important right." We applaud the governor for recognizing that voting is a right, not a privilege. As lawmakers consider the prison-reform legislation that passed the state House of Representative on Monday, we hope that policymakers follow Holder's advice and allow citizens to vote when their sentences have concluded.