Will: What government interest is served by disenfranchising felons?
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — 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.
Meade heads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which gathered more than a million signatures to get the state Supreme Court to approve, and local supervisors of elections to verify, the ballot initiative that voters will decide on Nov. 6. Meade's basic argument on behalf of what he calls "returning citizens" like him is: "I challenge people to say that they never want to be forgiven for anything they've done." Persons convicted of murder or felony sexual offense would not be eligible for enfranchisement.
Intelligent and informed people of good will can strenuously disagree about the wisdom of policies that have produced mass incarceration. What is, however, indisputable is that this phenomenon creates an enormous problem of facilitating the re-entry into society of released prisoners who were not improved by the experience of incarceration and who face discouraging impediments to employment and other facets of social normality. In 14 states and the District of Columbia, released felons automatically recover their civil rights.
Recidivism among Florida's released felons has been approximately 30 percent for the five years 2011-2015. Of the 1,952 persons whose civil rights were restored, five committed new offenses, a recidivism rate of 0.4 percent. This sample is skewed by self-selection — over-representation of those who had the financial resources and tenacity to navigate the complex restoration process that each year serves a few hundred of the 1.6 million. Still, the recidivism numbers are suggestive.
What compelling government interest is served by felon disenfranchisement? Enhanced public safety? How? Is it to fine-tune the quality of the electorate? This is not a legitimate government objective for elected officials to pursue. A felony conviction is an indelible stain: What intelligent purpose is served by reminding felons, who really do not require reminding, of their past, and by advertising it to their community? The rule of law requires punishments, but it is not served by punishments that never end and that perpetuate a social stigma and a sense of never fully re-entering the community.
Meade, like one-third of the 4.7 million current citizens nationwide who have re-entered society from prison but cannot vote, is an African-American. More than one in 13 African-Americans nationally are similarly disenfranchised, as are one in five of Florida's African-American adults. Because African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, ending the disenfranchisement of felons could become yet another debate swamped by partisanship, particularly in Florida, the largest swing state, where close elections are common: Republican Gov. Rick Scott's margins of victory in 2010 and 2014 were 1.2 and 1.1 percent, respectively. And remember the 537 Florida votes that made George W. Bush president.
Last week, Scott's administration challenged a federal judge's order that the state adopt a rights-restoration procedure that is less arbitrary and dilatory. A Quinnipiac poll shows that 67 percent of Floridians favor and only 27 percent oppose enfranchisement of felons. These numbers might provoke Republicans, who control both houses of the Legislature, to try to siphon away support for the restoration referendum by passing a law that somewhat mitigates the severity of the current policy. Such a law would be presented for the signature of the governor, who is trying to unseat three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Again, who is comfortable with elected politicians winnowing the electorate? When the voting results from around the nation are reported on the evening of Nov. 6, some actual winners might include 1.6 million Floridians who were not allowed to cast ballots.