Florida felons make up some 20% of the more than 5 million people in the United States who cannot vote because of current laws disenfranchise them. Because of the economically and racially discriminatory history of disenfranchisement laws and their current disproportionate impact on marginalized and underrepresented populations, these laws should be reformed.
Laws Used to Perpetuate Power for Political Elites
Limits on the right to vote have historically been instituted to preserve power for the elite. A Columbia Human Rights Law Review article explains that America's Founding Fathers endorsed restricting voting to so-called stakeholders in the nation: John Adams claimed that “only those who have sufficient property to ensure their support of the established order can with safety be allowed to vote.” This and other early arguments in support of limiting the franchise showed that they were more concerned with protecting the powerful (under the guise of the 'established order') than in a true representative democracy inclusive of all segments of society. Indeed these elites (often referred to as 'superior races') were bent on excluding unfit voters from the polls, arguing that convicted criminals would destabilize the country by creating an “anti-law enforcement voting bloc.”
Felon Disenfranchisement Part of Jim Crow Legacy
Historically, advocates of limiting access to the ballot argue that voting is a privilege to be conferred upon a select community of people as opposed to a right to be protected for all citizens. This argument has been made especially aggressively during eras in which the previously powerless gained some measure of political power. In fact, many laws were first passed in the post-Reconstruction Southern and border states in an effort to curb the power of freed slaves. Gregg Sangillo of the National Journal writes that such felon disenfranchisement policies “were inserted into Southern state constitutions in the late 19th century, and were aimed at Blacks.”
Over the long history of Jim Crow and into the Civil Rights Era, these laws provided a bulwark against demands for power-sharing from black Americans, as well as poor people of all races caught up in the criminal justice system. In fact, six of the 10 states with the highest percentage of their population disenfranchised are in the American southeast (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia). In those six states, Blacks are some 21% of the population but 40% of the states' disenfranchised population disenfranchised because of felony convictions. They proved so effective at excluding non-elites from the electorate that they were broadly adopted across the country. Now only Vermont and Maine choose not to strip this right from people upon incarceration More than 1.1 million people in Florida alone would more quickly regain the right to vote under Gov. Crist's proposal.
The Voting Rights Act ended the use of poll taxes and written exams as barriers to voting, but felon disenfranchisement laws were untouched. Disenfranchisement laws persist because elites would rather choose the electorate than defend the franchise as a basic right for all citizens.
States' Efforts to Restore Voting Rights
Recent developments in state-level policy include Florida Governor Crist's push towards eliminating most hurdles to restoration of voting rights for felons not convicted of violent, sexual, or trafficking crimes. This is especially notable because Florida has, by far, the largest pool of felons affected by loss of voting rights, the vast proportion of them coming from populations that are underrepresented at the polls.
Additionally, last November, Rhode Island voters approved a constitutional amendment approving automatic restoration of voting rights upon release from prison. Some progressive steps dealing with the voting rights of people with felony convictions are also being taken in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Utah, and Washington State. Iowa, Nebraska, and Tennessee made changes in 2005.
Voting is a Right, Not a Privilege
Gov. Crist's and other proposals should be applauded, though some advocates note that the Florida proposal doesn’t go far enough. According to an ACLU background memo, Florida's clemency plans “represent incremental progress but... still fall far short of a truly fair and effective plan to restore the right to vote.” States still with laws that deny felons and incarcerated populations' voting rights must shake off the legacy of Jim Crow and vigorously seek to provide access to the franchise for all citizens.
A Project Vote policy brief on Felon Voting Rights discusses states' confusing felon disenfranchisement laws and their disproportionate impact underrepresented communities.
A representative democracy demands the active participation of all segments within it and is incompatible with anti-democratic attempts to choose an electorate to the benefit of entrenched political elites. Felon disenfranchisement, one the most flagrant examples of these attempts, is a practice with a long and ugly history steeped in the ugliest episodes of this exceptional country's past. Florida's proposed restoration of rights to felons is represents the kind of voting rights action that should be broadly emulated across the United States.