Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday urged states to repeal laws that prohibit felons from voting, a move that would restore the right to vote to millions of people.
The call was mostly symbolic—Mr. Holder has no authority to enact these changes himself—but it marked the attorney general’s latest effort to eliminate laws that he says disproportionately keep minorities from the polls. “It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values,” Mr. Holder said at civil rights conference at Georgetown University. “These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”
African-Americans represent more than a third of the estimated 5.8 million people who are prohibited from voting, according to the Sentencing Project, a research group that favors more liberal sentencing policies. And in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one in five African-Americans has lost the right to vote.
The United States is unique in the democratic world for barring people from voting in such large numbers. Mr. Holder said the laws stemmed from the late 1800s, when states tried keep blacks from voting.
“Although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African-Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable,” he said.
Nearly every state prohibits inmates from voting while in prison. In four of them—Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia—felons are barred from the polls for life unless they receive clemency from the governor. The rest of the country’s laws vary. Some state restore voting rights after a prison sentence is complete. Others require a waiting period. Some have complicated processes for felons to re-register to vote.