Barred for Life

The process for restoring the civil rights of felons in Florida works perfectly -- if not restoring their rights is the goal

To the surprise of many, Wilder boldly inquired, "Could I ask why I was denied?"

"The reason is a simple one," Bush replied stonily. "The lack of remorse. Come back in two years."

Ten of the thirty applicants were denied, with three unfavorable cases taken under advisement.

illustration by Robert Neubecker
Chris and Robin DiFranco experienced the trials of Job in restoring his civil rights
Colby Katz
Chris and Robin DiFranco experienced the trials of Job in restoring his civil rights

A few minutes later, Bush faced the phalanx of reporters once again, answering questions about reductions in classroom and cabinet size. Shouldn't the right to vote be restored automatically to felons who've served their time? Bush was asked. No, he replied, he doesn't support that. "Because I think there ought to be efforts made to show, as people do here, that they've made an effort to improve their lives," he said. "That is an appropriate thing. There are certain things -- violent crimes, pedophiles who are habitual offenders, crimes against police officers -- that there is a threshold, I think, over which there needs to be a review."

Florida's governor, however, is not in step with most of the nation when it comes to handling restoration of felons' rights.

"Florida today is basically one of thirteen states where felons can lose voting rights even after they've completed their sentence," says Marc Mauer, assistant director at the Sentencing Project. "It's one of the most restrictive states in that regard, well out of the mainstream if you look at it that way."

In a 1998 report he authored, Mauer wrote that supporters of disenfranchisement frequently cite three reasons: protection against voter fraud, prevention of harmful changes to the law, and protection of the purity of the ballot box. But most crimes have nothing to do with voting, he points out, and there is no evidence that felons are more likely to commit voter fraud than anyone else. To the second point, there's little reason to believe that felons would vote as a group to overturn criminal laws. Moreover, Mauer writes, conditioning the right to vote on the content of one's vote "contradicts the very principle of universal suffrage." The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot exclude a class of voters because of concerns about how they might vote.

As to the final rationale, Mauer writes: "Looked at closely, the 'purity of the ballot box' argument is no more than a moral competency version of the idea that the franchise should be limited to people who 'vote right.'"

Max Rameau, leader of Miami's Brothers of the Same Mind, recalls similar resistance to legislation proposed in Tallahassee in 2000 that would have made restoration automatic. "The opposition basically said that if ex-offenders vote in a bloc, then they could affect the outcome of elections -- as if contractors or lobbyists or [political action committees] can't do the same thing," Rameau says. "Or that they could get together and vote for an elected official who's soft on crime. It was just bizarre.

"Obviously there are many reasons that are not publicly expressed. What we think is the motivating factor is that there is a deliberate attempt to undermine or disenfranchise black voters, undermine the black vote in general."

Alzo Reddick, a state representative from Orlando until he was term-limited in 2000, offers his own reason why Florida continues to disenfranchise felons. "There's a conservative element in this state that takes the Bible literally, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," submits Reddick, among a handful of black legislators who for years have sponsored bills to make restoration automatic. "They are opposed to having people who have sinned in their eyes returned to the full measure of citizenship." He calls it the "Christian Taliban."

"It is an embarrassment, but it's an issue that I'm going to fight until the day that I can no longer draw breath," says Reddick, who is now trying to garner support for a constitutional amendment that would, at the very least, make rights-restoration automatic. "In my opinion," he predicts, "this would do more to change the face of Florida politics than anything else."

Indeed it could change the face of national politics. In an article published in December in the Journal of Sociology, sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza found that had off-paper felons in Florida been able to vote in the 2000 presidential election, Gore would have received an additional 60,000 votes, giving him the state's electoral college votes and, hence, the presidency. This is due in large part to the disproportionate number of African-American felons barred from voting whose preference would likely have been for Democrats and Gore.

"[The analysis] makes the key assumption that felons would behave politically in the same way as those who share their similar characteristics with the general population," Uggen explains. "We do a little bit of testing of that assumption using some other survey data, and it seems to bear out."

When polled, a large majority of Americans, 80 percent, believe that felons' rights should be restored upon completion of sentence, probation, and parole, according to the Uggen and Manza book Locking Up the Vote: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, which is scheduled for release this year. "When we ask about those [still] on probation and parole, only about two-thirds would say they should regain their rights," Uggen says. "When we ask about current prisoners, it's down to 33 percent."

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