Rick Santorum, Voting Rights Activist

We’ll say this for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum: He can surprise you from time to time. He was, for instance, the first and only GOP candidate to seize on a lack of income mobility as a serious problem in the United States, as he did at an October debate in Las Vegas. And at Monday’s to-do in South Carolina, Santorum attacked the front-runner on the unlikeliest issues in a deep-red, law-and-order southern state: felon voting rights.

Santorum raised the subject because the pro-Romney super-PAC “Restore Our Future” has recently released an ad statewide hitting Santorum for supposedly voting to allow felons to vote while still in prison. That’s false—Santorum voted to restore voting rights to felons only after they’ve left prison and had been restored all of their other rights—and he called Romney out of it. Then he asked a question: “I would ask Governor Romney, do you believe people who are felons, who have served their time, who have exhausted their parole and probation, should they be allowed to vote?”

Romney initially dodged the question, switching to his prepared defense of super-PACs. But Santorum pressed: “I’m asking you to answer the question…this is Martin Luther King Day. This is a huge deal in the African-American community because we have a very high rates of incarceration, disproportionately higher rates, particularly with drug crimes in the African-American community. The bill I voted for is the Martin Luther King voting rights bill.” Pressed again for an answer, Romney at last said he’d oppose restoring voting rights to anyone who has committed a violent crime.

And then Santorum played his trump card: While Romney was governor, Massachusetts had a policy of allowing felons to vote once they’d left prison—even while they were still on probation. Think Progress flagged the whole exchange, which you can watch below:

This isn’t likely to win Santorum any votes in South Carolina; if anything, it might still cost him a few—that’s why Romney’s super-PAC initially thought this was a winning issue. But it’s an issue that’s worth raising and one that candidates for presidents should be forced to take a stand on.

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