Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Midterm Election Backlash Part VII: FL Gov. Scott Ends Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts

My blog partner Shady Grady said it best "The recent election let the loonies out to run the asylum."  I couldn't agree more.  Now for your average low-information voter, most people during the midterm elections last November could not fully appreciate the impact that putting the Tea Party Republicans into power would have on our day to day lives.   Many people did not vote in the midterm election and of those who did, many of them bought into the hype that the Tea Party could somehow deliver positive change for the average American Joe.  But what we've seen so far is anything but that.  In case you haven't been paying attention, upon electing the Republicans this past November we've seen (i) our federal government almost crash to a halt; (ii) a rejection of federal high speed rail programs in Republican-run states that not only would have put people to work but also would have improved our infrastructure as a nation; (iii) a full out assault on the collective bargaining rights of public unions; (iv) rioting in the streets by 10's of thousands of citizens in opposition to said assault on the collective bargaining rights of unions; (v) an attack on state budgets for teachers and other state employees; (vi) "birther"-driven initiatives at the ballot that will require Obama to re-present his birth certificate...again, and (vii) this latest move by the midterm-elected Florida Governor Rick Scott to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who have recently been released from prison (who, by the way, just so happen to be predominantly Black and Latino). 

As the Miami Herald reported:

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet have ended the automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights to nonviolent felons once their sentences are up.
Sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, they voted 4-0 on Wednesday to change the panel's rules and require at least a five-year waiting period before ex-convicts can apply to get their rights back.
"If you're convicted ... you lost those rights," Scott said at a news conference later in the day. "There ought to be a process to get those rights back."

There ought to be a process to get those rights back?  Why?  As an attorney who has worked with convicts at every stage of the criminal justice system, nobody has ever been able to explain to me the connection between (A) serving a prison sentence for a finite amount of time and (B) losing your right to vote indefinitely after the finite sentence has expired.  
As the Governor correctly noted, if you're convicted of a crime you lose those rights [to vote].  Yes, that's true.  You do lose those rights once you are convicted and go to jail to serve your time.  But when your jail sentence is up, you don't have to apply to become a free citizen again.  You automatically become a free citizen the moment you step outside of the prison. That's because freedom is a right under our Constitution, not a privilege.  Likewise, voting is also a right - not a privilege - under our Constitution. Therefore, it makes no sense (legally or otherwise) why one should have to apply or go through some kind of "process" in order to reclaim something that is already their right to begin with. 

As a matter of public policy, I can understand why certain rights, such as the right to bear arms, may be stripped from individuals who were convicted of violent offenses.  It follows logically that, in the interest of public safety, we probably would not want to arm a person who has demonstrated a propensity for violence.  However, what public interest is served by stripping a past offender from having the right to vote once they have paid their debt to society?  Perhaps the answer lies in this next quote from the Miami Herald:

The change is effective immediately and potentially affects anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 felons, experts said.
To put this in perspective, in the 2008 Presidential Election, Obama won the state of Florida (and its whopping 27 electoral votes) by only 236,000 votes, defeating McCain 4,282,074 to 4,045,624.  Stated differently, if you remove 300k votes from Obama's tally, McCain would have won the state of Florida.  To further put the impact of this policy into perspective, consider the 2000 Presidential Election between GW Bush and Al Gore.  At the end of the day, Bush carried the state of Florida - and by extension, the Presidency of the United States - by only 537 votes, defeating Gore in Florida 2,912,790 to 2,912,253.   In other words, voter disenfranchisement matters.  And when we consider that the 5-year voting ban executed here by Gov. Scott just so happens to prevent any former inmates, many of whom are Black and Latino, from voting for Obama in the upcoming 2012 election, it is plain to see the interest that this policy serves.
Considering that Gov. Scott himself was almost criminally indicted in the largest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history, one would think that he would take a more empathetic approach to the voting rights of former convicts.  Then again, for somebody who rejected $2.3 billion in federal funding to develop high-speed rail for the people of the state of Florida, perhaps empathy would be asking for too much.

Should ex-convicts be allowed to vote?
What are the benefits of disenfranchising ex-convicts?
Is it safe to assume that the majority of ex-convicts would vote Democratic?
For extra-credit, has the common man/woman gotten the message yet about electing those who go against their interests?

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