Governor Jeb Bush yesterday restored the civil right of voting to only 22,000 previously disenfranchised felons out of 150,000 included in a suit against the state demanding restoration of rights. The ACLU estimates the number of disenfranchised felons in Florida at 600,000. So what happened yesterday was progress, but not nearly enough of it.
Deeply problematic arguments have always been marshaled and sold in defense of disenfranchising felons. The value to which Americans – explicitly or implicitly – appeal in staking out such a position, as the ninth circuit appeals court observed, is often a conception of “the purity of the ballot box” as a state interest worth defending – or otherwise, as Keyssar argues in The Right to Vote, “a general pronouncement that a state has an interest in preventing persons who have been convicted of serious crimes from participation…” Such reasoning describes Judge Friendly’s defense of states’ prerogative “that perpetrators of serious crimes shall not take part in electing the legislators who make the laws…the prosecutors who must try them…or the judges who are to consider their cases.” Friendly’s argument is immediately sympathetic, and seems eminently reasonable. It is, however, profoundly undemocratic.
For democracy to be “the worst system except for the all the other ones” demands a faith – a gamble – that more times than not, the decisions of a large group of human beings will be better for them than the decisions of any select group or individual chosen from among them without their consent. Democracy is, at best, a medium which brings the will of the people (however determined or constructed) into power as the policy which governs the people. If pure is a meaningful term in reference to democracy, it must refer to how representative we judge the process – not how desirable we find the result. Purity, as the 9th court references it, however, is a subversive undercurrent in the debate: the purity of the voters who take part in the process. Pure democracy, in these terms, is a democracy in which the morally pure cast the votes. This is – unless the impure have been expunged from society entirely – not democracy at all.
Friendly appeals to an intuitive sense that the views of criminals don’t belong in formation of policy on the criminal justice system. The assumption, presumably, is that criminals have vested interests in certain policy results. But our voting booths, unlike our juries, demand no assumption of neutrality. Rather, democracy is a struggle between interests. Friendly’s argument implies, clearly, that criminals have self-serving interests that would, if realized, be detrimental to society as a whole. This too, however, is not nor should be a barrier to voting in the American system. Klansmen are as free to vote against reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act as CEOs are to vote against overtime protections. Much as Franklin asked why going from the moment of having a donkey to the moment of not having a donkey should change the worth of someone’s vote, we must ask why going from possessing a burning desire to murder and being unable to follow through to successfully committing the act should have such an effect. Had Friendly argued in his opinion that American policy should be made by those who are pure, it would be much less frequently cited and much more intuitively off-putting. It would rightly raise the specter of campaigns for purity throughout American history, and the tremendous damage they wrought to the welfare of countless people and to the legitimacy of our democracy.
There are severe negative consequences to disenfranchising felons – removing those most affected by criminal justice policy from the political discourse denies them the primary avenue available to reform it. This creates a vicious cycle in which bad policy can systematically disenfranchise communities while denying them the vote and the voice with which to reverse it. Considering which Americans are in fact losing the franchise for felonies, for felony convictions, or for false records – as Greg Palast documents in the case of Florida – of felonies, suggests that this is more than an idle prospect. Overwhelmingly, such policy is denying the vote not to the theoretical cold-blooded murderer of the hypothetical, but to legions of working-class people of color, most for drug-possession, reinforcing the stratification of wealth and power which distinguishes the modern United States.
Registering voters in low-income neighborhoods here in Tampa has provided me a powerful reminder of just how many people are forced out of the process by felonies for which they’ve already served time, and just how how unrepresentative a sample of America these disenfranchised voters are. No one we talk to here is more adamant about the urgency of voting than the ex-felons who can’t, or more critical of those who insist that there’s no point in voting. It’s frustrating to be able to offer little more than a form to apply for executive clemency – a process which, as we saw yesterday, leaves much to be desired – and demanded.
(Cross-posted at Undernews)