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Why Restoring Voting Rights Matters for Florida’s Latinos

It may not be for the reasons you think

October 31, 2018

Next week, Flor­idi­ans have a chance to engage in a uniquely demo­cratic act — and not just by cast­ing a ballot in Tues­day’s elec­tion. In Flor­ida, they can do some­thing more — they can vote for voting. 

Thanks to a move­ment led by affected citizens, Flor­idi­ans will vote on Amend­ment 4 — the Voting Restor­a­tion Amend­ment. If it passes, Amend­ment 4 will restore the eligib­il­ity to vote to 1.4 million Flor­idi­ans with felony convic­tions in their past, who are currently barred for life from voting. This amend­ment, and what it means for demo­cracy, should have partic­u­lar signi­fic­ance for the Latino community — but perhaps not for the reas­ons you may think.

It’s tempt­ing to think about Amend­ment 4 in partisan terms. These days, comment­at­ors are quick to spec­u­late on whether voting laws will bene­fit Demo­crats or Repub­lic­ans. But Latino voters are not mono­lithic  — espe­cially not in Flor­ida, where 6 in ten registered Latino voters are Repub­lican or unaf­fili­ated. It’s diffi­cult to say what effect Amend­ment 4 might have on party polit­ics in the Latino community.

It is also natural to ques­tion the racial implic­a­tions of tying voting to the crim­inal justice system. And, to be sure, research shows dispar­it­ies in how Lati­nos fare in Flor­id­a’s system. But that’s a complic­ated story as well, both because of the racial diversity of the Latino popu­la­tion and because for many years, Lati­nos were simply not coun­ted in crim­inal justice data. As far as Flor­ida and many other states were concerned, people in prison were either white or black, making it almost impossible to tell how many of the 1.4 million people that will be impacted by Amend­ment 4 are Latino.

It’s this exclu­sion from the conver­sa­tion that’s really the point. Lati­nos in the U.S. under­stand what it means to be margin­al­ized, to be left out of the discus­sion. It is no secret that even as the Latino popu­la­tion is soar­ing, Lati­nos are under­rep­res­en­ted in polit­ics.

Some of this under­rep­res­ent­a­tion is the result of restrict­ive voting policies that suppress the Latino vote, often inten­tion­ally. Whether or not Flor­id­a’s life­time ban on voting for people with convic­tions has a dispro­por­tion­ate impact on Lati­nos, the Latino community has reason to be wary — and crit­ical — of any harsh and restrict­ive voting law. And Flor­id­a’s law is as harsh as it gets. Only two other states in the coun­try, Iowa and Kentucky, perman­ently bar every­one with a felony convic­tion from voting.

Some of the under­rep­res­ent­a­tion of Lati­nos surely stems from below-aver­age engage­ment. In Flor­ida, one of the parts of the coun­try where Latino voters have the biggest impact, only 60 percent of registered Latino voters voted in the 2016 elec­tion, compared to 66 percent of all registered voters. Lati­nos often lament this low turnout, which lags behind that of both white and black voters. Mean­while, there are Flor­idi­ans clam­or­ing for the oppor­tun­ity to vote who can’t. They led an initi­at­ive to collect over a million signa­tures in order to get Amend­ment 4 on the ballot. Anyone concerned about apathy should welcome their enthu­si­asm for demo­cracy.

The bottom line is that the Latino community stands to bene­fit from a broader, more inclus­ive demo­cracy. As Lati­nos struggle to have their voices heard, they should be care­ful not to push others to the margins.

Perhaps this common struggle allows Lati­nos, espe­cially in a state like Flor­ida, to look past the partisan divide. Maybe instead, Latino voters can consider Amend­ment 4 on prin­ciple. The meas­ure honors a prin­ciple that is more or less univer­sal: forgive­ness. It is not a conser­vat­ive prin­ciple or a liberal prin­ciple — it is a prin­ciple of human­ity. Indeed, the notion of forgive­ness is sewn into the very fabric of our demo­cracy and our legal insti­tu­tions. Though we some­times forget it, it is a bedrock prin­ciple of our crim­inal justice system, which aims to rein­teg­rate return­ing citizens who have served their time. As the Flor­ida Confer­ence of Cath­olic Bish­ops put it when endors­ing Amend­ment 4, “Punish­ment must include a construct­ive and redempt­ive purpose. As nearly all inmates will return to soci­ety, their integ­ra­tion must be encour­aged.”

In other words, soci­ety bene­fits from re-enfran­chising return­ing citizens. This is truer in Flor­ida than anywhere. Flor­ida is such an outlier on this issue, deny­ing the vote to so many, that Amend­ment 4 impacts every­one. The 1.4 million people that could regain their eligib­il­ity to vote repres­ent nearly 10 percent of the total voting-age citizen popu­la­tion in Flor­ida. There can be no doubt a group that size includes Flor­idi­ans of all races, ethni­cit­ies, and polit­ical parties. Flor­id­a’s demo­cracy is broken, and no one — least of all Latino voters — should be okay with a system that releg­ates so many to second-class status, deny­ing them one of the hall­marks of U.S. citizen­ship.

(Image: Joe Raedle/Getty)