U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who recently said that he will leave office sometime this year, has long championed the expansion of voting rights and civil rights.
Perhaps conscious of his legacy as the nation’s first African-American attorney general, Mr. Holder may want to be remembered as someone who took civil rights seriously even while being on the wrong side of many issues dealing with civil liberties.
On Tuesday, he called for the repeal of state laws that deny felons the right to vote. Nearly 6 million Americans are prevented from voting because of current or previous felony convictions.
Unfortunately, there is no federal remedy for this problem. Not even the attorney general can ensure that people who have paid their debt to society can have their voting rights restored. The matter must be addressed state by state, where voting rights are set in law.
Pennsylvania is better than most states on the issue, although there is still room for improvement.
In this state, convicted felons in prison, jail or a halfway house at the time of an election cannot vote, although felons who are on probation or parole can. Defendants who are locked up and awaiting trial on a felony charge can vote by absentee ballot. After serving their sentence, felons have the right to petition for the full restoration of voting rights.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly — and other states — at a minimum should make the return of a person’s voting rights automatic after inmates have served their time. If Americans want offenders who have paid their penalty to return as productive citizens, there is no better place to start than the voting booth.