Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
In business, there is no such thing as an unpayable debt.
Laws governing everything from usury to bankruptcy enable us to square our accounts, no matter how big a hole we dig for ourselves. In bankruptcy, for instance, the explicit goal is to give debtors a fresh start, so they can re-enter the world of commerce.
But what about a fresh start for former felons?
Increasingly, we recognize the importance of allowing people who have run afoul of the law to re-enter society on terms that don’t make failure virtually inevitable. An increasing number of jurisdictions are going so far as to restrict prospective employers and others from inquiring about prior convictions. I think there are enormous problems with these so-called “ban the box” initiatives, but I certainly agree that the relationship between the government and a person convicted of a felony ought to be restored to normal after the convicted individual has paid his or her societal debt.
The history of disenfranchisement as punishment for a crime stretches back to ancient Greece, and many U.S. states at one time barred some or all convicts from voting. However, during the 20th century, many critics suggested that some states were using such statutes principally to deny large numbers of black Americans voting access. While the U.S. Supreme Court found in 1980 that disenfranchisement laws were not unconstitutional unless they reflected purposeful racial discrimination in City of Mobile, Alabama v. Bolden, state laws banning felons from voting for life have largely fallen out of favor in recent years.
Such laws have not vanished entirely, however. Television host Samantha Bee took on my own state in a recent segment in which she asked: “Come on, Florida, do you really want to be the Florida of everything?” In particular, Bee bashed the state’s Republican governor and lawmakers, although she didn’t distinguish very carefully between them and all other Florida Republicans (such as me). This hits particularly close to home, since I have a daughter who works on Bee’s program.
But while my daughter’s boss and I may not see eye to eye on everything, in this case I am happy to get on board with Bee’s broader argument.
Florida is one of the three strictest states in the nation when it comes to voting restrictions for former felons. Under Florida law, anyone convicted of a felony loses his or her right to vote for life, unless the governor and the Board of Executive Clemency grant an exception. In practice, this means more than 1.6 million Floridians can’t vote (or hold office or serve on a jury). Bee cited an Al Jazeera report that said this group represents 10 percent of the state’s overall population and nearly 25 percent of its African-American population. Floridians constitute about 27 percent of all Americans who have lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction.
It is also worth noting, as Bee does, that Florida’s clemency board currently rejects over 90 percent of people who appeal to have their voting rights restored. This number does not include the people who do not apply for clemency at all because the application fees or the trip to appear in Tallahassee are prohibitive. And the state’s current mandatory waiting period means those who do apply cannot do so until five years after they complete their sentences. Due to the state’s backlog, many applicants wait up to nine more years after that for their slim chance at clemency.
Advocates to change the Florida law point out that the current system is unfair, as well as costly to Florida taxpayers. They also cite evidence that restoring voting rights helps those who have served their sentences reintegrate into society and gives them a stake in their community. This, in turn, could help steer those with former convictions away from future crimes and support their efforts to rebuild after paying their societal debts.
The group Floridians for a Fair Democracy is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to amend Florida’s constitution. If passed, the amendment would automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions other than murder or sexual offenses once they have served their sentences in their entirety. Bee’s segment encouraged viewers to sign this petition – or to encourage eligible Florida voters they know to sign – humorously styling the two spokesmen she talked to as the leads of “Miami Rights.” (As Bee observed, “Everything’s more fun in a blazer.”) If the petition’s supporters can submit 766,000 valid signatures, the initiative will appear on the ballot in November 2018.
I think that, in the long run, Bee and other critics of the voting ban would be doing Florida Republicans a favor by pushing us toward restoring civil rights to our neighbors who have past felony convictions, a disproportionate share of whom are members of minority groups. Black Floridians represent 16 percent of the state’s population but 48 percent of its prisoners. True, many Republicans believe that the push to overturn voting bans for felons is a naked attempt to put more Democrats on the voting rolls. But what does that matter? There is no legal or moral justification for targeting a segment of society for disenfranchisement merely because we are afraid of how that group might vote.
If we want members of minority groups to take seriously our Republican arguments that freer markets and greater personal choice can improve their lives and their communities, we can’t simultaneously behave as though their votes are something to fear, rather than something to court. If you want someone to listen to you, you have to be prepared to let them speak in turn. The drive to restore voting rights would give voice to a large number of my neighbors who currently feel disenfranchised – because, in fact, they are.