WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder called on a group of states Tuesday to restore voting rights to ex-felons, part of a push to fix what he sees as flaws in the criminal justice system that have a disparate impact on racial minorities.
"It is time to fundamentally rethink laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision," Holder said, targeting 11 states that he said continue to restrict voting rights for former inmates, even after they've finished their prison terms.
"Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans - 5.8 million of our fellow citizens - are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions," Holder told a symposium on criminal justice at Georgetown University.
Now into his fifth year as attorney general and hinting that this year might be his last, Holder survived political controversies that, early on, placed him on the defensive. Now, he is doubling down on the kinds of issues that have long held his interest during a career in law enforcement - prison overcrowding, overly harsh mandatory drug sentences and school disciplinary policies that he says push kids into street crime.
Congress used to be the place that highlighted Holder's problems, including a plan to try terrorists in New York City and the failed Justice Department investigation of gun smuggling in Arizona that ended in the death of a border patrol agent.
Now, Holder is talking about partnering up with conservative lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who shares concerns such as mandatory minimum prison sentences that can put away low-level drug offenders for decades. On Tuesday, Holder took note of the fact that Paul was to be a participant in the criminal justice symposium later in the morning.
On a topic with racial overtones, Holder said 2.2 million black citizens, or nearly one in 13 African-American adults, are banned from voting because of these laws, and he said the ratio climbs to one in five in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia.
"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."
The 11 states identified by the Justice Department as restricting voting rights of former inmates are Arizona, Florida, Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Wyoming, Tennessee and Virginia.
In Iowa, action by the governor caused the state to move from automatic restoration of rights following completion of a criminal sentence to an arduous process requiring direct intervention by the governor in every individual case, Holder said.
"It's no surprise that, two years after this change - of the 8,000 people who had completed their sentences during that governor's tenure - voting rights had been restored to fewer than 12," the attorney general added.
Reaction was swift. In Iowa, the governor's office disputed Holder's figures, saying that in 2013, the voting rights of 21 individuals were restored. No applications were denied, and seven applications are pending, the governor's office said.
Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad "believes that when an individual commits a felony, it is fair they earn their rights back by paying restitution to their victim, court costs, and fines," said Jimmy Centers, the governor's spokesman. Centers said Branstad has no plans to change the current process and that too often, victims are forgotten.