MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, only 12 states permanently disenfranchise persons who have been convicted of felonies, with limited possibilities for appeal. Other states have varying degrees of restoration of voting rights, including two states -- Maine and Vermont -- that allow voting while imprisoned.
Under Governor Rick Scott, Florida is one of the dozen states that have a lifetime ban on voting for persons convicted of felonies, with few exceptions. That is likely due to a desire to keep more than 1.5 million Floridians from voting, most of whom would presumably vote Democratic. In a state where Al Gore lost the presidency in 2000 by a few hundred votes and Scott won his two terms as governor by very small percentages, the current restrictions on voting by persons formerly incarcerated for felonies serve the interests of the Republican Party. It is of particular interest to Scott, who just announced that he is going to run against current Democratic US Senator Bill Nelson in November for a Senate seat.
Scott has been given until April 26 to eliminate the lifetime prohibition on voting by those people convicted of felonies. The order was issued earlier this year by federal US District Judge Mark Walker. Scott and his Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi first tried to receive a stay from complying with the ruling. Judge Walker wrote in his opinion denying the stay:
Defendants’ arguments [the State of Florida], to put it mildly, are unpersuasive. The stay motion is littered with other astounding arguments that fail to outline substantial likelihood on the merits or irreparable harm to any party. For example, this Court is left scratching its head when considering how its order directing Defendants to comply with the Federal Constitution impinges on state sovereignty.
Now, Scott, through his attorney general, is asking the ruling to be overturned by the US Court of Appeals. Scott's refusal to follow through and restore voting rights has earned him the sobriquet of "Florida's Jim Crow governor" from the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. On April 10, the editorial board chastised Scott, writing:
The clemency system Florida has used for decades is an arbitrary relic of the past, traced all the way back to the post-Civil War state constitution and the Jim Crow era of multiple racist efforts to discriminate against black former slaves. Under Scott, the process forced felons to wait at least five years after completing their sentences to apply to have their rights restored to the governor and Cabinet sitting as the clemency board. The governor is required to be on the prevailing side, and petitions are considered just four times a year. The wait can take untold years and there is a backlog of thousands of cases. No wonder Walker previously found such an arbitrary system with "mythical’’ standards violates the First Amendment rights of free association and free expression.
The right to vote in the United States is meant to be inclusive, not exclusive. Scott's defiance of Judge Walker is consistent with all the other Republican efforts nationwide to limit those who are perceived as likely Democratic voters from casting ballots. That includes burdensome voter identification requirements, limited early voting, restrictive voter registration laws and the like. A major policy of Trump's -- keeping immigrants from becoming citizens -- is also, in part, a voter suppression tool. Scott, looking at the November election he will be running in, has a political interest in limiting the number of people who would likely vote Democratic. In this, he is consistent with the Republican strategy to restrict the number of Democratic voters using as many approaches as possible.
Even inveterate conservative columnist George Will recently criticized Scott for his position:
The bumpy path of Desmond Meade's life meandered to its current interesting point. He is a graduate of Florida International University law school but cannot vote in his home state because his path went through prison: He committed nonviolent felonies concerning drugs and other matters during the 10 years when he was essentially homeless. And Florida is one of 11 states that effectively disqualify felons permanently.
Meade is one of 1.6 million disenfranchised Florida felons -- more people than voted in 22 states in 2016. He is one of the 20 percent of African-American Floridians disenfranchised. The state has a low threshold for felonious acts: Someone who gets into a bar fight, or steals property worth $300 -- approximately two pairs of Air Jordans -- or even drives without a license for a third time can be disenfranchised for life. There is a cumbersome, protracted process whereby an individual, after waiting five to seven years (it depends on the felony) can begin a trek that can consume 10 years and culminates with politicians and their appointees deciding who can vote.
All citizens deserve the right to vote, no matter what their legal history, particularly considering how flawed and unjust the US mass incarceration system is.