Felon Disenfranchisement: The New Jim Crow
When we think of electoral shenanigans, we often think of blatantly rigged elections with uncounted votes and hanging chads, overcrowded and understaffed polling places, blatant voter intimidation, the purging of voter rolls, pushing false information about when and where to vote, and forcing legitimately registered voters whose names do not appear on voting rolls, to cast provisional ballots.
More recently, we have heard a great deal about new legislative efforts in a number of states to suppress the vote including, making it harder to register, cutting down on the period for early voting, implementing photo ID laws, and ending Election Day simultaneous registration and voting. However, when we think of voter suppression, we don’t often think about felon disenfranchisement.
According to a 2010 report by The Sentencing Project titled “Expanding The Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform 1997-2010,” while things have been slowly changing for the better in a number of states. “More than 5 million citizens…[were] ineligible to vote in the midterm elections in November , including nearly 4 million who reside in the 35 states that still prohibit some combination of persons on probation, parole, and/or people who have completed their sentence from voting.”
In addition, “Racial disparities in the criminal justice system also translate into higher rates of disenfranchisement in communities of color, resulting in one of every eight adult black males being ineligible to vote.”
Florida is one of the states with an extraordinarily egregious record regarding felon disenfranchisement. A mid-April report by the South Florida Times’ Bill Kaczon pointed out that Florida Governor Rick Scott has “made it more difficult for Floridians with past felony convictions to get their voting rights restored—a situation critics say has suppressed the minority vote and hurt Democratic candidates.”
According to Kaczor, “As one of his first actions after taking office in 2011, Scott, as chair of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, undid automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent ex-offenders that previous Governor Charlie Crist helped adopt in 2007. Since then, the number of former felons who have had their voting rights restored has slowed to a trickle, even compared with the year before Crist and the clemency board helped make the process easier.”
Susan Greenbaum, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, recently prepared a briefing paper for Representative Dan Raulerson (R-FL) on felon disenfranchisement in the state. Excerpts from the paper, titled “Permanent felon disenfranchisement in Florida,” appeared in the April 2013 issue of the LWV Voter (League of Women Voters). Greenbaum pointed out that, “A bad law that originated for the wrong reasons, not only has negative effects on ex-felons, but their families, communities, and the state budget” also suffers.
In a democratic society, Greenbaum wrote, “Measures that reduce the size of the electorate are regressive…and an inability to vote renders ex-felons into what has been called ‘civil death.’ This outcast status has been described as an ‘invisible punishment’ that offers no obvious deterrent example, but hinders the capacity of released inmates to achieve successful re-entry [into society]. There is no evidence of harm to elections if ex-felons are permitted to vote, and [there is] considerable evidence…that this ban increases reoffending, rather than discouraging it.”
Greenbaum found that Florida is one of only four states that permanently disenfranchise individuals who have been convicted of felonies. (Most states permit immediate or eventual re-enfranchisement.) As incarceration rates have soared, both in Florida and elsewhere, the number of people affected by this restriction has grown (about 6 million in the U.S.). Florida accounts for 1.5 million, 1.3 million of whom have completed their sentences (NAACP 2012). Although Florida comprises only 6 percent of the U.S. population, 25 percent of disenfranchised felons and ex-felons reside in the state.
Criminologists have compiled ample evidence that voting bans do nothing to deter future criminals and promotes recidivism. A recent study by the Florida Parole Commission of ex-felons restored since 2007 found rates of re-offending that are 50 percent lower than other released convicts.”
Felon disenfranchisement has direct links to post Civil War Black Codes in Florida and many other Southern states as laws were enacted to prevent African Americans from voting. Other measures followed; poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, etc. The Voting Rights Act outlawed most of these practices, but voting restrictions for felons have survived numerous court challenges. Felon disenfranchisement currently affects nearly one quarter of Florida’s black voting age population—the highest rate in the nation.
The scope of crimes falling under the definition of “felony” is extremely broad, including many non-violent offenses. Minor drug possession accounts for a very large share. The expanding use of plea agreements that avoid long sentences in exchange for shorter ones has been shown too often to convict the innocent. Low-income defendants who may be innocent but have no effective legal assistance are convinced to plead to lesser degree offenses rather than risk almost certain conviction on more serious charges. This practice helps ease court dockets and reduce the costs of jury trials, but it is ballooning the prison population and bringing increased numbers of low income minority citizens unjustly into felon status; essentially “second-class citizenship.” Among the other life-long costs of this awful dilemma is having to forgo the right to vote.
The right to vote can be restored only by individual considerations of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, an excruciatingly slow and unpredictable process. In early 2007, then Governor Crist, eased rules to provide automatic restoration for lesser felonies, with review for more serious cases. Although still a very small fraction, in three years more than 150,000 ex-felons had their rights restored. Almost immediately upon entering office, Scott repealed Crist’s changes and added new restrictions, resulting in fewer than 300 individuals’ rights restored during his tenure. Applicants must wait at least 5 years before commencing a process that, if successful, will take another 7 years or longer. In effect, they currently have no path to restoration.
Although several states have initiated legislation that would ease requirements allowing released felons the franchise. “No such legislation has been filed in Florida,” the South Florida Times’ Kaczon reported. “House Democratic Leader Perry Thurman of Plantation said that nothing short of electing a new governor will change Florida’s policy unless [Gov.] Scott has a ‘change of heart’.”
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.