WASHINGTON — 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 — Holder has no authority to enact the changes — 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,” Holder said at a 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 “These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”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 1 in 5 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. Holder said the laws stemmed from the late 1800s, when states tried to 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 states restore voting rights after a prison sentence is complete. Others require a waiting period. Some have complicated processes for felons to reregister to vote.
Studies show that felons who have been denied the right to vote are far more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.
In 2002, scholars at the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University concluded that the 2000 presidential election “would almost certainly have been reversed” had felons been allowed to vote.
In Florida, the state that tipped that election, 10 percent of the population is ineligible to vote because of the ban on felons at the polls, Holder said.
The question of how people vote is contentious, particularly since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act last year.
That decision allowed states to pass voting laws that would otherwise have needed federal approval.
After Texas and North Carolina passed laws requiring voters to show identification at the polls, the Justice Department sued. Studies show that minorities and the poor are less likely to have the identification required.
Democrats accused Republicans of trying to suppress the vote among populations that tend to vote for Democrats. Republicans in turn accused Holder of politicizing the Justice Department and meddling in state efforts to prevent voter fraud.