Elections

What Government Interest Is Served by Disenfranchising Felons?

A voter casts his ballot behind a ballot booth REUTERS/Keith Bedford/File Photo
The practice is undergoing a much-needed reconsideration in Florida and other states around the country.

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 non-violent felonies concerning drugs and other matters during the ten years when he was essentially homeless. And Florida is one of eleven 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 ten 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.

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.

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 governor 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 senator 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.

© 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

Most Popular

White House

What Is Hillary Clinton Thinking?

When Homer Simpson looks in the mirror, he sees ripped chest muscles and arms like the trunks of beech trees. When Hillary Clinton looks in the mirror, she sees America’s sweetheart. She thinks: America adores me. She thinks: America already chose me to be president once! She thinks: Everyone is comparing me ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Grassley’s Kangaroo Court

So now it looks like next Thursday. On Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s manifestly meritorious nomination to the Supreme Court, what was supposed to be the vote out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this past Thursday now appears to be sliding into a hearing to be held next Thursday. Or, who knows, maybe a Thursday ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Censure Dianne Feinstein

Regardless of the fate of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, the Senate should censure the ranking Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein. Her deception and maneuvering, condemned across the political spectrum, seriously interfered with the Senate’s performance of its constitutional duty to ... Read More
U.S.

Are We on the Verge of Civil War?

Americans keep dividing into two hostile camps. It seems the country is back to 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, rather than in 2018, during the greatest age of affluence, leisure, and freedom in the history of civilization. The ancient historian Thucydides called the civil discord that tore apart the ... Read More