Even after last summer’s daily voter registration rejections in Tampa, the level of cynicism about Mexican electoral politics manifested in the limited number of conversations I’ve had about it with folks in Cholula is pretty striking. Students and others here have told me they weren’t planning to vote next July, that they didn’t care who won, or that that they were planning to cast blank ballots. Even the few people I talked to who were firmly behind a candidate were fairly resigned about future prospects. One thirty-something public employee in Fox’s PAN acknowledged significant disappointment with Fox’s term but blamed it on PRI obstructionism and union intransigence, and called the PRI’s Madrazo a selfish egomaniac and the PRD’s Lopez Obrador a corrupt socialist encouraging dependency. A student who wants to work as an engineer for Pemex (Mexico’s national oil company) told me Fox is criminally corrupt, Madrazo is out for his own power, and only Lopez Obrador seems to care about the Mexicans who are struggling – though his populism scares her. She was dubious about whether Fox and the Mexican elites supporting him would make it possible for Lopez Obrador to take office.

There’s certainly plenty to be cynical about. On the other hand, here the front-runner in next year’s election is a self-identified “humanist” who’s overcome the majority party’s legal bid to eject him from the race and seems to be gaining despite the opposition of economic elites throughout the country and abroad. Which certainly wasn’t the kind of pitch I was able to make last summer.

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Took part in a strong protest this morning here in Tampa as Bush’s motorcade passed on its way to a conference on trafficking of women, an issue which, opportunistic photo ops aside, has only become more grave since Bush cut $20 million in enforcement.  It was a good chance for a range of groups – Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, MoveOn, several union locals – to come together to bear witness to this administration’s real record of broken promises.  My estimate would be about 300 folks out against the President’s policies and about a dozen there in support, which is a proportion similar to what it’s been both of the other places (in Pennsylvania and Connecticut) I’ve seen his motorcade go by.  Was it this way under Clinton?

“They say it’s our fault and we don’t care about politics,” someone told me yesterday at the Unemployment Office, “but when you try to get involved, it seems like they’re trying to stop us from really being able to vote.”  Looks like the Civil Rights Commission <a href=”agrees’>http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=584&e=3&u=/nm/20040715/pl_nm/campaign_florida_dc”>agrees:

Florida faces another debacle in the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 2, with the possibility that thousands of people will be unjustly denied the right to vote, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights heard on Thursday.  In a hearing on the illegal disenfranchisement of alleged felons in Florida, commissioners accused state officials of “extraordinary negligence” in drawing up a list of 48,000 people to be purged from voter rolls, most of them because they may once have committed a crime.  “They have engaged in negligence at best and something worse at worst,” said Mary Frances Berry, chairperson of the commission, an independent bipartisan body whose members are appointed by the President and Congress.   She said the commission would ask the Justice Department to investigate the matter.  “It does seems to me there is a smoking gun here,” said commissioner Christopher Edley. “There has been extraordinary negligence in the way the felon purging process has been conducted. … If it was intentional, this could be a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act.”

In a victory for transparency and democracy, a judge in Leon County has ordered the release of Florida’s list of felons to purge from the rolls:

Florida’s error-prone list of 47,763 suspected felons who could be tossed from voter rolls before November’s presidential election contains nearly three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. Almost half are racial minorities…Circuit Judge Nikki Ann Clark said in her ruling that the Florida Constitution “grants every person the fundamental right to inspect or copy public records.” Further, the state had previously allowed the public and news media to inspect the list and not make copies, but Clark cited previous state court rulings that said the public’s access was “valueless without the right to make copies.”…Among racial groups, the largest reported group was non-Hispanic whites with 24,197, followed by 22,084 non-Hispanic blacks, 1,384 unknowns, 61 Hispanics, 14 Asian or Pacific-Islanders, 12 American Indians and 11 others. The list consisted of 37,777 men and 9,986 women.

Mistakenly purging eligible voters from the rolls was among the state’s biggest stumbles in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, which decided the presidency by 537 votes. The list included voters who had never been convicted of crimes, some whose rights had been restored by other states and others whose names matched those of felons. Nobody knows how many valid voters were disenfranchised. In response to those errors, the state asked the counties to verify the list in advance of elections and, if they could not, to remove questionable voters from the rolls. Florida is one of just seven states where felons must petition to regain voting rights after serving their time. Counties must issue letters to voters who could be declared ineligible. Only those who can prove they’re eligible to vote will be left on the rolls. Secretary of State Glenda Hood said in a statement announcing the release of the information that it contains potential matches and is not a final list.

To describe the 2000 purge as “mistaken” is misleading at best. As Greg Palast wrote recently:

This “no count,” as the Civil Rights Commission calls it, is no accident. In Florida, for example, I discovered that technicians had warned Gov. Jeb Bush’s office well in advance of November 2000 of the racial bend in the vote- count procedures. Herein lies the problem. An apartheid vote-counting system is far from politically neutral. Given that more than 90 percent of the black electorate votes Democratic, had all the “spoiled” votes been tallied, Gore would have taken Florida in a walk, not to mention fattening his popular vote total nationwide. It’s not surprising that the First Brother’s team, informed of impending rejection of black ballots, looked away and whistled. The ballot-box blackout is not the monopoly of one party. Cook County, Ill., has one of the nation’s worst spoilage rates. That’s not surprising. Boss Daley’s Democratic machine, now his son’s, survives by systematic disenfranchisement of Chicago’s black vote.

Releasing the lists is a vital step in stopping the whitewashing of the voter rolls from proceeding as planned again. In the meantime, Bush and company are scoring double victories by convincing all too many of those we’re out in Tampa pressing to register to vote that it isn’t worth it because, as many have put it, “They don’t count the votes – they just put whoever they want in there anyway.”

More on felons and the political process: The Associated Press apparently did some research, discovered that America Coming Together (ACT), one of the largest national groups sending canvassers out to register and educate voters for the election, had hired some former felons, and they were shocked – just shocked. ACT’s response, to their credit, has been defending its policy:

We believe it’s important to give people a second chance,” Elleithee said. “The fact that they are willing to do this work is a fairly serious indication that they want to become productive members of society.”

RNC Chair Ed Gillespie, shamefully but unsurprisingly, is claiming that having been convicted of a felony should disqualify Americans from handling official documents with private information. His essential contention – that the democratic process is too pure to be sullied by the involvement of those with crimminal records – should be all too familiar to those who saw it marshalled by a slew of dKos posters to defend Arizona’s disenfranchisement of felons in the name of keeping Nader off the ballot.

More power to ACT for hiring everyone who’s prepared and qualified for the hard, urgent work of empowering people to make demands of our democracy. I know I’ve found few people as excited about that work here in Florida as those felons who’ve been purged from the process. Everyone (almost) claims to want to see those who’ve served their time productively and smoothly reintegrated into society. Except not into my neighborhood. Not into my workplace. Not into my democracy.

A Dkos poster replies to me:

If you think drug laws are unfair, work to change the drug laws so that drug offenders are no longer convicted felons.
But don’t let convicted felons have a position of fiduciary trust in the voting process. Let them have jobs, apartments, let them vote, yes. If this bothers you, ask yourself: would you want a convicted felon (and I don’t mean a drug offender; I mean a child molester, white-collar criminal, or gunpoint robber) to be president? I wouldn’t. Sure, maybe his rehibilitation made him especially wise, but I wouldn’t want to take a chance. The risk is just too great. And where did Nader or the firm he hired find 19 convicted felons to put on payroll? Did they recruit especially for that demographic?

Would I vote for a convicted felon for President? Well, it would depend on what his platform was, who he was running against, and (to a lesser extent) the circumstances under which he became a convicted felon. Would I want to be denied the chance to vote for that candidate by having him purged from the ballot? Sure as hell not, no matter who he is.

For those who don’t know, the proportion of convicted felons among young men of color in many communities in this country – including some here in Florida, where I’ve been registering voters the past few weeks – is as high as one in four. So no, you don’t have to be looking to find them. As for fiduciary trust, there’s no justification for barring felons as a class (and let’s be honest about the size and demographic of the class we’re talking about) from working for the government, from voting, or from working to give those who desire the chance to exercise their democratic right to sign their name to a petition. What the process needs is oversight of signatures as they come in, not purges of the people who collect them.

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)