By James Sample
Stating “I believe in my heart that everybody deserves a second chance,” Florida’s Republican Governor Charlie Crist is hoping to announce this week that Florida will restore voting rights for most people with felony convictions who have completed their criminal sentences. Restoration is a long-overdue reform. Nationally, it is also a reform on which the left and the right increasingly agree.
Still, the relic of disenfranchisement is not entirely without defenders. In order to effect the change in Florida, Governor Crist needs the support of two other members of the four-member Board of Executive Clemency. One of those cabinet members is state Attorney General Bill McCollum, who took to the op-ed pages of the St. Petersburg Times yesterday in a misguided attempt to perpetuate the myths and half-truths propagated by supporters of the status quo. For example, in a glaring non sequitur allegedly supporting his position, he states that “more than 70 percent of arrestees test positive for drugs, and studies show that drug traffickers live lives of violence.” (emphasis added).
McCollum emphasizes concerns about recidivism but he completely elides—or simply misses—the contradiction of his lamenting that ex-offenders “would be able to acquire a state-licensed job, whether as a household pest exterminator, residential building contractor or alarm system installer.” Just as restoring the right to vote reintegrates individuals into a participatory society—and thus helps reduce recidivism—removing overly-broad barriers to gainful employment serves democracy and criminal justice alike.
Governor Crist’s proposal accelerates a trend that already has momentum. Since 1997, sixteen states have reduced barriers to voting by people with criminal records. Leaders embracing the trend span the political spectrum. Ten years ago then-Texas Governor George W. Bush—hardly known as soft on crime—signed a bill into law that restored voting rights to people who completed their sentences. Likewise, the bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, which last fall released its report, “Building Confidence in U.S. Elections,” agreed that re-enfranchisement of ex-felons is a voting-rights issue, not a punishment issue, and that states should restore voting rights to persons who have completed their sentences.
On the left, Iowa Governor Thomas Vilsack issued an Independence Day Executive Order in 2005 restoring the right to vote to tens of thousands of Iowans who had completed their sentences. And last week, the heavily Democratic Maryland legislature passed a bill restoring the right to vote to 50,000 Maryland citizens, which Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is expected to sign into law soon.
Politicians’ efforts to restore voting rights have been surpassed by the political rank-and-file. Last November a majority of Rhode Island voters approved a ballot measure amending the state constitution and restoring the right to vote to 15,000 of their fellow citizens as soon as they are released from prison—even prior to the completion of supervised release.
The United States is the only democracy in the world that disenfranchises people who have completed their criminal sentences. By comparison, in most European nations, some or all prisoners are entitled to vote. Although the practice of disenfranchisement predates the Civil War, many states enacted or modified their felony disenfranchisement laws in the Jim Crow era as a way to suppress the voting power of black citizens. Make no mistake; the laws continue to have that effect. Nationwide, 13% of black men are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, a rate that is seven times the national average. In Florida that figure is a startling 18.8%.
It is the role of the criminal justice system, not the electoral process, to punish individuals based on the severity of their crime. The durations of criminal sentences reflect agreed-upon societal norms, and when those sentences are fully completed we should encourage participation in one of society’s most constructive acts. Yet many states have complex, multi-tiered restoration schemes that predictably lead to confusion, chilling effects, intimidation, manipulation and delay. In short, recall Katherine Harris and Florida’s “voter cleansing” program immediately prior to November 7, 2000—a program marked by incompetence on a Katrina-esque scale and driven by nefariously partisan purposes.
Americans overwhelmingly oppose the political chicanery and disenfranchisement such systems produce. A 2002 Harris Interactive poll found that eighty percent of Americans favor returning voting rights to citizens who have completed their sentences for felony convictions. In other words, Governor Crist is marching in lockstep with Americans—liberals and conservatives—who believe in the redemptive value of second chances.
Restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentences is a goal that conservatives and progressives can share. And to that point, the Sunshine state may soon be a shining example.