By DeWayne Wickham
When former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour got around to offering an explanation for the pardons and clemencies he granted 215 convicted felons shortly before leaving office this month, you'd think there might have been a few loud voices of support.
But despite the claim that his actions were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to let the felons — 27 of whom were convicted of manslaughter or murder — regain their right to vote, not a discernible peep has been heard from proponents of returning that most precious of American rights to ex-convicts.
"The pardons were intended to allow them to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote," said Barbour, a once-idolized conservative who once served as Republican National Committee chairman
Mississippi is one of 13 states where convicted felons do not automatically regain the right to vote after being released from incarceration, probation or parole. Undoing this obstacle to voting is a cause célèbre for many left-wing activists. Last month, two civil rights groups — the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc. —jointly released a report on barriers to voting. Denying felons the right to vote "is one of the most significant barriers to political participation in this country," the report concluded.
Of the 5.3 million American felons who have lost the right to vote, nearly 2 million are black, the report states. Though Barbour's pardons and clemencies won't put a dent in that number, they could have an impact of a different sort. They are a break in the ideological picket lines between left-wing opponents of voter disenfranchisement and right-wing advocates of permanently stripping ex-convicts of the right to vote.
By resorting to an extraordinary use of executive power to return the right to vote to some of Mississippi's citizens, Barbour seems to agree with the NAACP groups that in our democracy, voting is an immutable right. Whether that was his intended message or not, voting rights proponents should have scrambled to his side. Instead, they have remained silent.
That's a pity.
In place of their voices, we now hear Jim Hood, Mississippi's Democratic attorney general, who is challenging the constitutionality of Barbour's action. Piling on, Democratic state lawmakers are pushing legislation that would make it harder for a governor to grant pardons and clemencies.
There may be reason to object to the process by which Barbour exercised his clemency and pardoning authority, but voting rights advocates should separate that from his intent. They shouldn't abandon a Southern conservative who sides with them on this issue because they agree with him on little else.
They shouldn't have to be reminded that while blacks are 37% of Mississippi's population, they're 66% of its prison inmates. So anything that's done to make it harder for ex-convicts to regain their voting rights will have a disproportionately negative impact on the political fortunes of Mississippi blacks.
Restoring the voting rights of the 2 million blacks nationwide who have a felony conviction is a fight that must be waged state by state. Common sense, rather than ideology, should be the driving force in this effort.
Unfortunately, the battle over Barbour's action is just the latest proof that in America today, partisan hang-ups too often keep people who ought to know better from doing the right thing.