The expansion of voting rights has been a persistent theme in recent American history, representing a movement away from the days of property-ownership requirements, literacy tests and poll taxes toward the enfranchisement of women, minorities and 18-year-olds.
It's within that historical context--more democracy for everybody-- that Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack explains his July 4 decision to use pardon powers to extend the franchise to ex-felons in the state. It's also in keeping with the trend in many states of extending voting rights to ex-offenders.
Since 1997, 11 states have expanded the categories of citizens eligible to vote--in most cases, former felons. This spring, for instance, the Nebraska legislature, over a gubernatorial veto, lifted the state's lifetime ban on voting by former prisoners, replacing it with a two-year waiting period.
Such moves are still anathema to some, including top Republican legislators in Iowa. There's a common assumption that most ex-felons are likely to support Democrats.
Opposition to voting rights for felons is not just partisan, however, but philosophical as well. Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, says those who violate the law shouldn't have a role in selecting those who make the laws. "The decision to restore voting rights to felons should be done carefully on a case-by-case basis, not in a blanket manner," he says.
Things don't seem to be going in Clegg's direction, however. This year's actions in Iowa and Nebraska leave Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia as the only states left that ban all ex-felons from voting, barring governmental action in individual cases.