Secretary of State Jason Gant and the South Dakota Legislature continue the Republican war on voting rights with House Bill 1247, a measure that would take away the right to vote from folks on probation:
South Dakota felons serving time behind bars are not allowed to vote until they complete their sentence. But currently, many felons placed on probation or parole can vote. Gant says South Dakotan needs to put all felons on an equal footing regarding their voting status [Perry Groten, "Reaction to Felon Voting Bill," KELO, 2012.02.22].
Hang on, Perry and Jason: HB 1247 disenfranchises probationers, but parolees are already off the voter rolls, according to Secretary Gant's own website:
Individuals who are convicted in State court of a felony and receive a sentence to the adult state penitentiary system lose the right to vote during the term of imprisonment. The loss of voting rights continues as long as the individual is physically incarcerated or on parole ["Felony Convictions," South Dakota Secretary of State's website, updated 2010.05.24].
Now, to the meat of the bill: Secretary Gant says it's unfair that "if you're convicted of the same felony but not sent to prison, you get to vote, but if you're sent to prison, you lose your right." Well, you could say that about a lot of advantages probation has over sitting in the pen. Probationers get to go to work, walk in the park, read to their kids, and sleep in their own beds. That's not unfair: that's the judge saying, "Ed's crime and Ed's attitude are worse than Fred's; Ed deserves to lose more rights than Fred."
Secretary Gant surely doesn't think it's unfair that any criminal gets probation. He's not arguing for universal incarceration for every DUI and minor altercation. Secretary Gant is just participating in the nationwide Republican effort to take away voting rights from people he doesn't like.
According to the South Dakota Unified Judicial System's FY2011 report, about 3600 South Dakota adults are on probation for felonies. If we think—if judges think—those 3600 felons are bad enough that they should not vote, we can already take that right away, by putting those felons in prison.
Our chief election official should not be focusing on taking away voting rights. He should be focusing on helping more citizens vote. As the ACLU's Bill Muller points out, "The people on probation, they're taxpayers. They're caring for their families. They're members of our society." Probation means you're fit to participate in civic life. That includes voting.