By [Russ Feingold] In the middle of the hot summer, citizens will gather this week in Florida to champion a ballot initiative to end the state’s permanent felony disenfranchisement.
As we face the daily jaw-dropping revelations about the Trump campaign and administration’s actions, keeping our focus on restoring legitimacy to our elections and our democracy has never been more important, and ending the historic wrong of felony disenfranchisement absolutely must be part of our agenda.
It seems unlikely that the Trump-Pence “electoral integrity” commission will touch this important issue, and any commission that ignores it isn’t serious about the legitimacy of our elections.
Trump's next attack on democracy: mass voter suppression
The right to vote is the most fundamental right of any democracy, granting it legitimacy as a means of government by instilling power in the people and not in politicians. It ensures “consent of the governed” and holds government accountable to the people: not law-abiding people, or moral people, or any other qualifier, but the people.
This most fundamental right is not and never has been about rewarding good citizens or even law-abiding citizens. It is not a luxury or a reward, handed out by the government as it sees fit. It is a right, and should not be conditioned on anything more than citizenship, and being of voting age.
And yet since the civil war, states have intentionally denied the right to vote to a certain category of citizens – those with a felony conviction. Today, felony disenfranchisement bars roughly 6.1 million citizens from the ballot box – one in 13 African Americans nationally.
This denial of a right so inherent to democracy – and to citizenship – is not based on respect for the law, but is rather a historic and deliberate effort to prevent black people from voting.
Proponents of felony disenfranchisement argue that as a felon or former felon, an individual has shown a disregard for the law, and therefore must demonstrate respect for the law before being able to vote on issues related to law. Yet felony disenfranchisement did not originate, nor is it being maintained, out of any high reverence for the law: quite the opposite.
It was invented after slavery, when white elites sought to diminish the power of newly freed slaves. White politicians tied disenfranchisement only to those crimes believed to be disproportionately committed by black people. The sole objective was to prevent black citizens from threatening the power of the white elite – an act fundamentally at odds with the very purpose of voting rights.
The discriminatory intent and impact of felony disenfranchisement is alive and well today. Those affected by disenfranchisement are disproportionately minorities and low-income citizens, voting groups that trend Democratic.
Moreover, the discriminatory politics and impact of today’s mass incarceration cannot be separated from those of felony disenfranchisement. By doubling down on mass incarceration under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and perpetuating felony disenfranchisement, the Republican party effectively blocks a determinative number of voters from voting, including in key battleground states.
Take Florida, for instance, where felony disenfranchisement bars nearly one in four black Floridians from voting. In tight races, that disenfranchisement can make or break an election. In 2000, an estimated 600,000 ex-felons were prevented from voting – President George W Bush won Florida by just 537 votes.
Disenfranchisement is fundamentally undemocratic. And yet only two states in the country fully protect the right to vote and enable people who are incarcerated to vote (Maine and Vermont).
The rest of the 48 states disenfranchise voters, with some states restoring voting rights at certain stages after completion of one’s sentence, parole or probation. Disenfranchisement is most illegitimate in Florida, Iowa and Kentucky, where a felony conviction costs a citizen his or her right to vote for life.
The only way to regain the right to vote in Florida, for instance, is to seek clemency from a court or the governor. This process is incredibly time intensive and has a low rate of success. Moreover, in clemency hearings, applicants are granted mere minutes to plead their cases, and can be asked any array of questions unrelated to their original conviction, including about acts of “good citizenship” and any traffic violations.
Citizens seeking clemency have already served whatever sentence, probation, and parole has been deemed appropriate by a court of law, and are back in society trying to successfully reintegrate. And yet a mere speeding ticket can be used to “justify” the permanent denial of their right to vote, forever making them a second-class citizen. Imagine if the right to free speech or religion were so conditioned.
There are 23 states that have expanded voting rights for former felons, and ending felony disenfranchisement is actually a bipartisan issue. Just recently, Alabama dramatically reduced the number of felonies that result in disenfranchisement. Florida could be next.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is rallying volunteers of all backgrounds at a gathering this week to build momentum toward next year’s state ballot initiative, which would automatically restore voting rights upon the completion of one’s sentence, parole, and probation.
Supporters of felony disenfranchisement argue that the current system is about preserving respect for the law. But they know better. Felony disenfranchisement has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with politics. It is an excuse to deny voting rights, just like voter ID laws and the literacy tests and poll taxes of old.
When a person is incarcerated, they do not lose their citizenship. We do not disown them and cast them from our borders. As citizens, they have a right to vote, and that right must be protected.
The alternative is to weaken our foundation as a democracy, at the expense of all of us. As citizens, we should seize the momentum building across the country and reject the Trump-Pence voter suppression commission, and instead champion the restoration of voting rights and our democratic legitimacy. [MORE]