By Hans von Spakovsky

Felons should be allowed to vote - but not until they have completed their sentences (including any period of probation or supervised release), paid at least part of any court-ordered restitution to their victims, and proven they are willing to abide by the rules of society.

To automatically restore voting rights the moment a felon walks out of prison is not in the best interests of the felon or the public. Instead, states should require a waiting period before felons can apply to a state review board or governor's office to have their rights fully restored.

This process should apply to more than just voting rights. Proponents of automatic restoration of voting rights often conveniently ignore the fact that felons lose many other civil rights as well, such as the right to sit on a jury, own a gun, obtain various professional licenses, or work as a public school teacher or law enforcement official in many states. The waiting period can vary depending on the seriousness of the felony and whether violence was involved.

Why have a waiting period? The recidivism rate for felons is extremely high. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested within three years; three-quarters were rearrested within five years.

A three- to five-year waiting period gives ex-offenders a real opportunity to "start over" and establish a track record of responsible behavior, showing they've succeeded in jumping off the criminal treadmill.

Automatic reinstatement of voting rights would not allow for this. Instead, it would give individuals who have intentionally broken the law the right to help decide, through the ballot box, what those laws should be and how they should be enforced - no showing of rehabilitation needed.

The claim that felon disenfranchisement provisions are racist is incorrect factually and historically. The majority of states restricted felon voting before the Civil War, when blacks were unable to vote in most states; at the time, such laws applied predominantly, if not exclusively, to white males.

In fact, the 14th Amendment, one of the three Reconstruction amendments, specifically gives states the authority to abridge the right to vote for "participation in rebellion, or other crime." Your race doesn't cause you to lose your right to vote - it is your decision to break the law.

Recently, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe granted a blanket restoration of voting rights (and the right to sit on a jury and run for office) to more than 200,000 felons. His executive action likely violates the state constitution as well as the previous requirement of a waiting period and individual review of petitioners.

Undoubtedly, McAuliffe knows that a large percentage of those felons will be back in prison before the 2020 elections. He apparently has no interest in learning who among them has turned over a new leaf and taken responsibility for his actions.

Ironically, while McAuliffe apparently believes felons can be trusted to act responsibly in the voting booth and the jury box, he specifically refused to restore their Second Amendment right to own or possess a handgun. If felons deserve automatic restoration of their voting rights because they have paid their debt and it will help reintegrate them into civil society, shouldn't all their rights be restored?

Felons should have the ability - and an incentive - to prove they deserve to exercise their right to vote, serve on a jury, and own a gun. But that can only happen if there is a waiting period after they are back in society and if there is a review of their record.

Sadly, we know that all too many of them will fail to change their ways and reintegrate into civil society. Instead, they will go back to prison, where an "I voted!" sticker should not be part of the uniform.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation ( and coauthor of "Who's Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk." He wrote this for