The “F” Words
For many years, three "F" words have always created a cacophonous chorus: Florida, felons, and franchise (as it relates to voting rights).
That was until last week, when Florida Governor Charlie Crist convinced its clemency board to permit most felons to become re-enfranchised after their release from prison. Crist said the time was ripe for Florida to "leave the 'offensive minority' of states that uniformly deny ex-offenders" their voting rights. Indeed, at the time of our last presidential election, 9% of Floridians of voting age were disenfranchised.
This is a significant step for Florida - home to 950,000 disenfranchised ex-offenders - and hopefully will set an example for other states with vindictive voting laws.
Disenfranchisement of ex-prisoners is no meaningless matter (see my previous posts "The Ever Elusive Right to Vote", "Prohibited from Participating in the Politicial Process", and "Give Back the Right to Vote"). At the time of the 2004 election, 5.3 million people with felony convictions were barred from the voting booths, while another 600,000 were denied the right while in jail awaiting trial. Southerners with felonies were hit hardest, with 7% of voters in Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia prohibited from the polls.
In other words, almost 6 million otherwise eligible American voters nationwide had not even the slightest say in the political process during our last picking of the president.
In a recent book by Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen titled "Locked Out", and reviewed by Jason DeParle in the New York Review of Books, they explain the impact of such unnecessary voter exclusion in this way: around 35% of disenfranchised felons would vote in a presidential election (compared to our embarrassing national rate of 52%); felons vote Democrat 70 to 85% of the time; had disenfranchised felons been allowed to vote in 2000, Al Gore's popular vote margin would have doubled to one million, and Gore would have won Florida by 30,000, and hence become the 43rd President instead of George W. Bush.
Beyond Bush, Manza and Uggen identify seven sitting Senators whose electoral victories have been made possible by preventing their states' prisoners from casting a ballot (six from southern states and one from Texas), four of whom would have lost even if only ex-felons had voted. As DeParle writes:
"A fuller enfranchisement might have shifted some years of partisan control to the Democrats. ... Consider just one result of Senate legislation - the upward distribution of wealth through the Bush-era tax cuts - and one sees anew how mass incarceration abets inequality."
Under Florida's new rules, instead of having to undergo a cumbersome review, drawn-out wait, perhaps an investigation and hearing, ex-convicts who committed nonviolent crimes (consisting of around 80% of the inmate population) will have their voting rights restored so long as no outstanding victim restitution remains and they have no pending criminal charges.
This does not mean everything is suddenly sunny for ex-offenders in the Orange State; those who are already out of prison must come forward and claim their right (easier said than done), and as we know from 2000, simply having the right does not necessarily translate into being able to exercise it.
Even so, on this specific issue, Crist should be heralded for finally harmonizing the three "F" words of "Florida, felons, and franchise." Could "Virginia, villains, and voting" be next?