WASHINGTON – Jack Kemp (search), the former Republican vice presidential candidate and HUD secretary, urged Congress on Tuesday to require states to restore voting rights for felons once they complete their sentences.
Kemp, who was Bob Dole's running mate in 1996, made the recommendation during the first in a series of hearings about the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits literacy tests, poll taxes and other infringements on minority voting.
Some key provisions of the 40-year-old law expire in 2007. One requires areas with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing their election laws.
Congress is expected to extend that provision for 25 years, but the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution is trying to determine whether the law should be tweaked.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (search), D-N.Y., stirred the lone moment of dissent among witnesses with his suggestion that Congress should amend the act to guarantee voting rights for ex-felons.
"It's important, if we're going to call ourselves a democracy, that everybody more or less have the right to vote," Nadler said.
Kemp quickly endorsed the idea, pointing out that minorities are disproportionately charged with felonies.
"My answer is unambiguously yes," said Kemp, a former congressman from New York, one of a handful of states that restores voting rights to criminals once they complete their prison term or probation. "It is a restriction that needs to be modified."
Former Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers, a member of a national commission on the Voting Rights Act, disagreed. He said states should be able to set their own requirements and argued that the number of felons isn't high enough to influence elections.
Besides the section requiring federal clearance for some states and localities to change their voting laws, two other key provisions are expiring in 2007. One requires foreign language assistance at the polls, and another allows for federal election observers to be used to deter intimidation of minority voters.