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Votes That Will Never Be Counted

Published: November 12, 2000

Chicago Tribune
November 12, 2000

Votes That Will Never Be Counted
By Nancy Northup

As the entire country knows, a difference measured in hundreds of votes in Florida will determine the outcome of the presidential election, but few are aware that more than 525,000 Florida citizens were denied the right to vote in Tuesday’s election. This is the election that elementary school teachers promised but statisticians called impossible: the election where every vote, at least in Florida, made a difference. While we continue to speculate about how a few thousand absentee ballots will affect the future of our country, the presidential choice of a half a million people was ignored because they were once convicted of a felony, although they are now out of prison or never even served time.

Florida, a state that denies voting rights to more of its citizens than any other, will decide this historic American election. The sheer number and percentage of Floridians being denied the vote is unparalleled in recent history. In the last 25 years, the number of ex-felons disenfranchised has increased from 1 percent to almost 5 percent of Florida’s voting-age population. African-Americans are disproportionately affected by the law, which disenfranchises at least 139,000 black ex-felons—9 percent of Florida’s blacks of voting-age.

Considering that Florida’s 25 deciding electoral votes will go to a candidate who will win by far less than 1 percent, there is no question these disenfranchised voters could have made a difference in this election.

But these numbers only tell part of the story. The dignity and equal participation of our fellow citizens is also at stake. Thomas Johnson, now the executive director of a widely celebrated program that helps ex-offenders become productive members of the community, is a recovered drug addict who has a past conviction for drug possession. In September, Johnson and other ex-felons filed a civil-rights lawsuit challenging Florida’s lifetime denial of the vote to ex-felons. While he awaits the outcome of that lawsuit, he is heartsick about being sidelined in this election. “This election is so close that the feeling of being shut out is magnified. I feel like an outcast. The judge did not sentence me to this.”

Florida’s ban on voting by ex-felons means that a citizen who wrote a bad check 30 years ago can be permanently denied the vote. Prominent politicians have admitted using illegal drugs and drunk driving, and may stand as examples that you can progress beyond your “youthful indiscretions.” But youthful indiscretions are enough to disenfranchise people for life in Florida. This ban continues to punish law-abiding citizens who have completed their sentences. Further, it tells people whom we need to reintegrate and reinvest in our society that their rehabilitation can only go so far. They can pay taxes, raise money for the PTA and20volunteer at20their churches, but they cannot help elect the people who represent their community.

In our lifetimes, we will never again see an election this close. Those of us who voted will remember this as a time when interest in politics and even the workings of the Electoral College was high, a time when we were reminded of the value of participating in our democracy. In a race this close, we begin to examine all of the possible influences on its outcome. Excluding these 525,000 voters in Florida had an undeniable impact on the outcome. The impact on our communities and our democracy of excluding this many people from the process is harder to quantify. The slim margin of victory in this election only highlights this universal truth: One vote does make a difference, especially to the person casting that vote.

Nancy Northup is a staff attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.