Make Convicted Felons Vote

A lawsuit says some convicted felons in California should be allowed to vote. But to really punish these criminals, voting should be required.

Under California law, convicted felons who are serving time in state prison or who are on parole cannot vote.

But the groups claim the law does not apply to those felons who serve their sentences in county jails.

In October, California began sending felons convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses to county facilities in order to reduce overcrowding at state prisons.

The League of Women Voters recently filed suit, arguing that some convicted felons in California -- specifically those serving time in county jails rather than state prisons -- should be permitted to vote.

State law bars felons who are serving time in prison or are on parole from voting. The league's suit focuses on whether prisoners who have been moved to county jails, as part of court-mandated efforts to reduce prison populations, become eligible.

This is an interesting controversy, but ultimately a narrow one. Indeed, the league suit falls far short of what is necessary.

So here's my modest proposal: All California convicted felons everywhere, of any status, should be required to vote in state elections.

Why? Three reasons.

1. This would help California boost its fair to middlling voter turnout, perhaps reversing the common perception that Golden State citizens don't care about politics.

2. Voting in California state elections makes for good alternative punishment. And alternatives are necessary, since the state has been incapable of providing funding and resources to support its prison population in a constitutional matter.

Indeed, voting in state elections is a prison of sorts. You must waste time making a choice in candidate elections -- especially legislative elections -- in which your vote is meaningless. After all, few seats are competitive, and legislators' hands are so tied by the constitution, the courts, the federal government and initiaties that they can't do much of anything. In local elections, you select a host of officials to all kinds of jobs, many of whom are powerless because they can't raise revenues.

And the initiative process, with its inflexible rules that make maximum security seem tame by comparison, allows voters to lock even half-baked legislation and foolish spending and tax mandates into the law, basically forever.

3. Convicted felons are true citizens of California in the way that you and I never will be.

Most Californians are really citizens of a particular region. They stay in their region and their contacts and friends are from the same region. Angelenos stay in Los Angeles. San Diegans in San Diego. Bay Area types in the Bay Area.

But two groups of Californians live and work closely with people from all over California. The first group is students in the state's university systems. The second group is prisoners in state prisons.

That gives felons a broader view of the various regions. And they know intimately the state's budget problems, since they are part of a prison system that has grown in the budget, but not by enough to keep up with prisoners' needs. Prisoners are also familiar with state prison guards, who represent nearly one third of state employees.

When you really think about it, one could make the argument that convicted felons are better suited than any California population to be good voters.

Of course, such coercion of convicted felons might well be unconstitutional. Some might suggest giving voting rights to all felons would be morally outrageous.

It's fortunate then that California has a way -- the initiative process -- to get unconstitutional, morally outrageous provisions into its state constitution.

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