Throughout the 2016 election cycle, the media and politicians alike spoke of the forgotten voters, the Americans whose voices were not being heard and whose will was not being done in their state capitals and D.C. Via Trump’s election, many said the forgotten Americans had finally been heard, but this is not true. These Americans always had access to the ballot box, and used it. The vote was never stripped from suburban and rural whites in the Bible belt, Appalachia and beyond. Rather, the real forgotten group is one who had no say in 2016, will have no say in 2018, and if we do not act, will go unheard in 2020.
I am referring, of course, to the growing number of Americans entangled in felony disenfranchisement policies across the country, but more specifically, here in the Sunshine State. In 2016, Florida had the largest percent of disenfranchised citizens at 10.43%, or 1,686,318. With Florida being only the third most populous state, it’s unconscionable that 27% of all disenfranchised Americans live here. What’s especially telling, however, is just how many of these disenfranchised Americans are Black.
The history of felony disenfranchisement is riddled with racial disparities, with the 14th amendment that state governments look to as support for the practice having been ratified immediately following the end of the Civil War. The interpretation of “except for participation in rebellion, or other crime” by state governments and subsequent over-enforcement when it came to minorities is no exception. At this point in our country’s history, while the federal government outlawed slavery, racial discrimination was still rampant and state sanctioned. Florida is no exception, with the state imposing a lifetime ban on voting for any convicted of a felony in 1868, the very year the 14th Amendment was ratified. At the same time, the state began formally criminalizing Black inter- and intrastate travel and use of public accommodations, among other things. These laws were used to over-incarcerate Black Americans and remove them from the electorate. In the 21st century, our state has continued this practice.
In this country, 38%, or 2.2 million, of all those stopped from voting by felon restrictions are Black. That works out to about 1 in 13 Black Americans being barred from voting in all 50 states. In Florida, that number is greater than 1 in 5, in part because our state is one of the strictest when it comes to felony disenfranchisement.
Earlier this year, a Florida judge ruled Florida’s process for returning the right to vote to former felons was unconstitutional. Part of the state’s procedure includes making ex-felons wait at least five years after completing their prison sentence, parole, probation, and paying restitution before applying to be re-enfranchised. As punitive as this is, it gets worse. The clemency board ex-felons would appeal to was a four-person panel with Gov. Scott as the leader. The governor alone had “unfettered discretion to deny clemency at any time, for any reason.” Nothing about our state’s system serves as a crime deterrent, or as evidence that we live in a democracy.
One’s life does not end behind bars, and upon release an individual’s civil responsibilities in every other aspect of their life are returned. Ex-felons work jobs, pay taxes, and attempt to follow the laws and policies set by our local, state, and federal government. Essentially, they are once again accountable to society. So why is it that they can no longer hold their government accountable to them?
This November, when Floridians are voting for a governor, four congressman, and a senator, one in ten of us will not have access to the ballot box. This is anti-democratic, and all too reminiscent of our country’s shameful past of explicit racial discrimination. At the crux of any democracy should be the ease of voting, where the voting is accessible to all who are bound to the laws made through the democratic process. Though it should be non-negotiable for all 50 states, it isn’t. That needn’t be the case in Florida, and with a constitutional amendment to return voting rights to a array of ex-felons on the ballot this November, it needn’t be our state’s future. A “yes” vote on Amendment 4 is a “yes” to a stronger democracy.