Linda Dominic Ashe
Forty-five years after the landmark Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices in the United States, voting is now deemed by some to be a privilege, not a right. Last week, Florida Governor Rick Scott enacted a law that prevents nonviolent ex-felons from voting for at least five years after they have paid their debt to society—and his motives appear to be purely political.
In 2000 and 2008, Florida voter disenfranchisement likely changed the course of history. An estimated 600,000 ex-felons in Florida were prohibited from voting in the 2000 presidential election due to disenfranchisement laws, even though they had completed their sentences. In our broken system, the ex-offender population in Florida is overwhelmingly people of color who historically vote Democrat. Because George Bush won Florida by a mere 537 votes, if 1% of disenfranchised voters had been allowed to vote, and if they had voted Democrat, Al Gore would have won Florida and the presidency.
In 2007, Florida Governor Charlie Crist initiated a bill to ease voting rights restoration, and more than 100,000 ex-felons registered to vote. The Wall Street Journal reported that “many of those new voters were likely Democratic-leaning African Americans” who helped Obama win in Florida. With Florida continuing to be a vital swing state in national elections, every vote counts—literally. Governor Scott claims that making ex-felons wait longer to regain their voting rights will reduce the number of people who commit new crimes. However, the Daytona Beach News Journal reports that former offenders who are permitted to vote have a lower rate of recidivism by half. Therefore, Governor Scott’s “reform” actually increases crime.
Aside from the political impact, why should anyone care about the rights of former criminals? For one reason, many ex-offenders are not criminals at all. Ohio State University estimates that as many as 10,000 people in America are wrongfully convicted of serious crimes each year. These people are victimized twice: once by a system that wrongfully convicts them and again when they are not permitted to fully rejoin society. In addition, 55% of those convicted of a crime in the United States are casualties of the War on Drugs. Drug use, whether recreational or otherwise, is not good cause to restrict a person’s right to vote. As discussed earlier, even if a person is convicted for a non-drug related crime, he or she is twice as likely to remain crime-free if his or her civil rights are restored.
When our government chips away at civil rights, more people feel powerless, distanced from the American Dream, and alienated from a system that often actively works against their interests. Yet, the number of disenfranchised voters in America is larger than the population of Los Angeles, and if concentrated in one area, would be the nation’s twenty-sixth largest state. In the words of Federal Judge Henry Wingate, the disenfranchised are “condemned to the lowest form of citizenship,” “voiceless at the ballot box” and must “sit idly by while others elect his civil leaders” and choose the “policies which govern him and his family.”
Those of us oppressed or disSenfranchised must not let differences such as race, age, disability, educational achievement, socioeconomic background, or ex-offender status divide us. We must stand together to keep control of our government away from those who would restrict our liberties, so, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”