To prevent inmates from voting is a civic indignity

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 28, 2019

Prison inmate voting is not an issue most citizens think about. In fact, until raised by Senator Bernie Sanders last week in a presidential candidate town hall meeting, I don’t think I had ever given it a second’s attention.

My first response to allowing incarcerated citizens to vote was that it was a silly, half-baked idea. After a couple days of thought, however, I changed my mind: Prison inmates should be eligible to vote.
My gut reaction to allowing inmates to vote was simply the thought that “you should lose your right to vote when you go to prison.” Then I asked “why?” Inmates are still humans, still citizens who retain rights of free speech and free exercise of religion, so why deny them the vote?

Citizens and non-citizens who violate laws need to be punished to protect other citizens from harm and to deter other citizens from disregarding social order. But prisons also should rehabilitate inmates, preparing them to return to society.

Prisons often offer drug treatment, religious services, job-training and some societal service activities such as reading books for the blind and rehabilitating abused dogs. These projects serve to connect inmates to the outside world and prepare them for their release. Restoring voting rights of citizens would encourage inmates to develop a sense of civic duty and help them to stay connected to society.

Whether young students, employees or prisoners, humans perform best when they feel and see that they have a stake in the activity. Early studies of “life without parole” inmates found, surprisingly to outsiders, that these inmates sooner or later accepted their fate and became involved in the prison’s education and service activities.

It turns out that Maine, Vermont, Canada and many European countries, including France and Germany, allow inmate voting. The issue is controversial in Great Britain where The European Court of Human Rights has held that Britain’s blanket ban on prisoner voting violates the democratic rights of its prisoners.
Prohibiting inmate voting based only on the fact of incarceration is an unnecessary civic indignity. It treats all inmates the same regardless of their crime or the length of their sentence. Felons with convictions for a third DWI, tax evaders, non-violent marijuana crimes with a short sentence are treated the same as murders, kidnappers, and drug lords.

Florida passed a referendum last November re-instating voting rights of felons when they are released from prison. Previously, former felons had to individually apply to the governor for voting restoration — a bureaucratic process usually ending in failure.
Currently 14 states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights once a convict is released from prison. In Missouri, released convicted felons must complete their probation and parole before being allowed to vote.

About 60,000 offenders in Missouri are under probation and parole supervision and cannot vote. A bill (HR 508) has been introduced into the Missouri House to restore voting rights upon release from prison, but it is not on the House calendar — although it did receive a hearing this session.

The electoral impact of maintaining an inmate’s right to vote is not likely to be large. There are about 2 million inmates in state and federal prisons, but they are not all citizens and otherwise eligible to vote.

America’s voting age population is about 250 million, but only about 150 million citizens voted in the 2016 presidential election. Therefore, restoring inmate voting nationwide would have less than a 1 percent increase in voters — if all inmates voted.

Canada found that in the 2011 elections, 54 percent of prisoners voted, compared with 61 percent of free citizens.

There are several practical aspects of prison inmate voting that need to be considered. First, conducting voting in a prison needs to be well-thought-out to protect election fraud of one form or another. Inmates need to be free to cast their own ballots without influence from other prisoners or prison authorities.
Second, because prisons are often large facilities in rural areas, there are likely to be adverse local impacts on the number of voters in a locale as well as a burden of the cost of conducting voting.

Additionally, the voting residence of inmates would need to be established. The worst-case scenario might be a county sheriff’s election where inmates make up a disproportionate portion of a county’s electorate.

It seems reasonable that inmates in state prisons be registered to vote by the Secretary of State, who would conduct the actual voting. Inmates should be eligible to vote only on federal and state matters, not on local issues or candidates.

Inmate voting would improve prisons. It will remind the rest of us that inmates are our neighbors, family members and fellow citizens and that we should reduce unnecessary and unwise imprisonment. It costs so darn much, and we need to give more attention to prison conditions and activities.

Allowing inmate voting will increase prisoners’ connection to the outside community, where many will be returning someday.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994

Does age matter in politics? Absolutely

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 21, 2019

Let’s talk about age. Specifically, the age of our political officials.

Some are too old; some are too young. We need to be guided by Goldilocks — they shouldn’t be too young, or too old, they should be just right!. For the American president, I nominate 45-65 as the prime years to be elected. For the Supreme Court and Cabinet secretaries, a mandatory retirement age of 70 seems right. For Congress, a few members under 30 is fine, but a House speaker approaching 80 and nearly a quarter of the U.S. Senate over 70 seems lopsided.

It is not that age is a politically sensitive issue in America. It’s that we don’t discuss it enough when it comes to electing public officials. No one characteristic should be the only criterion for supporting a candidate, but when we stop and think about it, we know that age makes a difference. Not universally, but darn close to it.

Humans develop and mature, then age and decline. The Wall Street Journal reported a study last week that older baseball umpires make significantly more bad calls than their younger counterparts. That’s just how life is.

The Democratic Party may soon have two generational candidates — the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden, who has yet to announce his candidacy. Buttigieg is 37, and Biden is 76.
Additionally, Sen. Bernie Sanders is 77, President Donald Trump is 72, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is 69. Are any of these candidates too young and too old, respectively, to be president of the United States?

Biden is largely viewed as a standout public service who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 and most recently served eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. Biden is credited with some major legislative accomplishments — the Brady Bill and the Violence Against Women Act — and he was an effective legislative liaison for Obama.

But then there is his role in the Clinton Crime Bill of 1994, which is blamed for minority incarceration, his vote for the Iraq War and his oversight of the Anita Hill hearings in 1990.

Those failures, along with his public displays of affection toward women, make him seem out-of-date and old-fashioned. Users of social media have plenty of material to make him look bad.

Then there Biden’s age, as well as Sanders’, Trump’s and, in a few years, Warren’s. If they were partners in many national law firms, they would have begun to wind down to retirement at 65.

Let’s be honest: No one reads and listens with the same comprehension at 76 as they even did at 66, which is a drop off from 46. Seventy-sixers tend to forget their car keys, forget why they entered the room, and sometimes forget how to drive home. That’s just how life is.

What then about the other end of the age spectrum among Democrats? There is no doubt Buttigieg, 37, is smart and articulate. He has been on the fast track to the presidency since he won a John F. Kennedy essay contest in high school.
He has the right boxes checked: Harvard, Rhodes Scholar, Senate staff, brief military service, blue chip international consulting firm. In Missouri, we saw a record like this with former Gov. Eric Greitens.

The missing puzzle piece is that early bloomers and fast risers often don’t hang around long enough for clear evaluation by diverse, knowledgeable co-equals. In a law firm, a university academic department or a corporation, both Greitens and Buttigieg would be subjected to several rounds of evaluations by their peers.

Buttigieg will be better at 50 then he is now. He will realize this when he is 50. He is likely to be more judicious, wiser, more tolerant, less driven by the need to take risks to succeed. Moreover, by 50 his personal and family life will probably be more settled. That’s just how life is.

By age 50, Buttigieg would be the subject of more media interviews and perhaps careful biographies by experienced writers. By 50, he may have more managerial experience and maybe long-term experience in a place other than South Bend.

By 50, he may have achieved a record as a professor, diplomat, investment banker or state government department head. By 50, he may have had the opportunity to see how things turned out from his mayoral experience in South Bend.

On the other hand, Buttigieg offers some attributes other candidates have not yet demonstrated. He is right when he says, “It’s time for a new generation of leadership.” On global climate change, the budget deficit, international leadership, relations with China, transportation infrastructure, education competitiveness, health care costs and coverage, we are falling behind , and it’s hard to see any political energy coming from most of our national leaders.

What we need most is a new generation of leadership that can learn from the past rather than repeat the same old stuff in fear of losing the next election.
Buttigieg is in a hurry; he knows he needs to take his shot when it is here. The buzz of a 37-year-old won’t last until he is 50. Timing is everything in politics. You have to seize the opportunity when you see it.

So, Biden’s time is past; Sanders’ and Trump’s are also probably past, but they are not about to recognize it. Buttigieg’s time is yet to come, but the future is calling. That’s just how politics is.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Survey confirms that mayoral race had a nasty tone

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 7, 2019

On Tuesday, Brian Treece was easily re-elected as Columbia’s mayor, with 64 percent of the vote over challenger Chris Kelly.Had I not talked with many potential voters last week, and I if I did not have early access to the survey I was conducting, I would have been surprised that many observers expected it to be a close vote.

After attending two 2019 Columbia mayoral election forums where I was disappointed to see the nastiness and the lack of clear choices offered to Columbia voters, I wrote a column in the Missourian that published March 24.

Several citizens told me they shared similar opinions. Although it was not clear which candidate carried most of the responsibility for the disappointing campaign, I sensed that many voters would end up casting their ballots for Treece. A couple of people suggested that Kelly and Treece are so similar that the campaign would be a personality contest.

To gauge general public sentiment about the quality of the campaign, I conducted an internet survey the weekend prior to Election Day. I received 73 responses from several email lists that I had available and 300 responses from Missourian readers.

Complete survey results can be found with this link: Be sure to read the respondent comments that necessitate an extra click for each question.

While not a random sample of voters, the group of 373 respondents was equally divided among gender (182 men, 181 women, and seven non-binary) with a diverse age distribution, although 45-65 was the largest group. Importantly, the group of 73 respondents responding to my email and the 300 replying to the Missourian survey notice had very similar responses to key questions. This suggests that the two “voluntary” samples came from the same larger population of community citizens and were not biased in a known direction. I am satisfied that they accurately reflect local public opinion. More than 50 respondents added additional comments to several questions. Only five responses looked bogus, including the clown who repeated several times, “This survey feels quite inappropriate, useless, manipulative and petty.”

Sixty-nine percent of respondents agreed that the 2019 mayoral campaign was nastier than during previous years. When asked who was the main cause of the nastiness, 44 percent selected Kelly and 17 percent named Treece, with another 12 percent indicating “the past year in city politics,” 15 percent picking “not nasty” and 12 percent choosing “other.”

Women were five points more likely to blame Kelly than to blame Treece. One respondent wrote it was “like two CEOs in a boxing match.” About one-quarter of respondents said they like both Kelly and Treece, and 13 percent said they dislike both, with the remaining 56 percent expressing a preference for either Kelly (21 percent) or Treece (35 percent). Several respondents criticized the use of the word “like.” One response read: “I don’t dislike either candidate. Treece seems more trustworthy. Actually, the people I know who support Treece are trustworthy and brilliant people. I trust their judgment.”

When asked about the way ethics was raised in the campaign, more than 29 percent replied that Kelly was wrong to delete his Twitter messages, compared to the 23 percent who said that “Treece had “serious ethical challenges” (a phrase Kelly used). Responses to this question showed a gender gap of about 5 percentage points — men were more critical of Treece and women more critical of Kelly. There was no gender gap among the 20 percent who replied that both candidates “seemed pretty much like previous candidates” and the 13 percent who said that “both candidates seemed to be hiding something.”

Forty-eight respondents added a wide variety of mostly thoughtful comments about Kelly and Treece. One respondent said, “Chris Kelly has made this campaign about ethics. I believe both men are honorable, and the ethics charges from both candidates are much to do about nothing.” Another said that “both candidates are decent, well-intentioned people. Both have made decisions I don’t agree with.”
Another respondent wrote: “I think both are essentially more ethical than many other candidates,” and another commented that “Neither seem like an angel.”
Respondents were asked “what is the biggest challenge facing Columbia” to see if there was a prominent issue for which a campaign could have focused. The simple answer: No, there wasn’t.

From a list, about one-fifth of respondents selected a group that included “policy,” “city financing,” city administration” and “future development.” Another 53 respondents (15 percent of the total respondents) added crime, infrastructure, affordable housing, transportation and “all of the above.”

When asked about confidence in city government, it was a tie — 35 percent selected “We are blessed with good government in Columbia” and 35 percent selected, “You never know how things will go.” Eighteen percent said they do not trust city government.

When asked just before Election Day which candidate would be elected mayor, 74 percent of respondents correctly expected that Treece would be re-elected and 24 percent predicted Kelly. Gender was a factor here: 80 percent of women predicted Treece would be re-elected, compared to 68 percent of men.

Future candidates and campaign managers would be smart to pick up on several lessons here. For starters, it was unlikely that Kelly would defeat Treece.
To the casual observer, Kelly looks a lot like Skip Walter, the candidate Treece defeated in 2016 to become mayor. Treece is a youthful incumbent without a serious performance blemish. A white male of similar age, or even older in Kelly’s case, probably would need a specific issue already in the public eye in order to rally support and beat Treece. Kelly did not articulate such an issue. Perhaps a younger opponent, maybe a woman or minority, could have used racial profiling and related police issues or downtown development or the need for affordable housing. Or they could have looked for a clear mistake or bad decision by the incumbent mayor as a rally issue.

Kelly’s experience in government never seemed to gain much traction, in large part because Treece has experience, too. After attending two forums myself and reading about the campaign, I think one comment by a survey respondent put it most simply: “Kelly represents the past; Treece represents the future.”

Thank you to all the survey respondents. A community survey presents a broader perspective than any one of us arguing an individual perspective.