THE RIGHT WAY TO HONOR THE 4TH

is to extend the reach of Americans’ constitutional freedoms by enfranchising those who’ve had their civil rights wrongfully stripped from them over prior felony convictions. That’s exactly what Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has done in an Executive Order which goes into effect today. Now tens of thousands of Iowans (a quarter of whom are Black, though only a fiftieth of the state is) have the chance to exercise that most fundamental franchise, one which fosters opportunities to fight for the all too many others whose realization in this country remains deferred or denied. As the Des Moines Register wrote:

It is the right move. Convicts who have served their time should not forfeit such a fundamental constitutional right…Vilsack’s announcement, which came out of the blue Friday afternoon, stunned even close observers of the issue. It also angered critics, including Republican state legislators who saw it as a political calculation to add 50,000 or more likely Democratic voters to the rolls. Perhaps, but that sounds like support for denying ex-convicts constitutional rights to maintain a Republican edge in numbers…restitution [to victims] should eventually be paid in full, and the state has many tools at its disposal to push for compliance. The toolbox should not include denial of constitutional rights, however. The inability to vote is a visible brand ex-felons bear that labels them social outcasts, increasing the risk they might commit new crimes. The sooner convicted felons are allowed to participate in this civic responsibility, the better their odds of leading successful lives.

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The Democrats’ challenge right now is to communicate that provisional ballots are not a legal technicality but an issue of civil rights. Keep in mind that the last election in which provisional ballots were consulted there, about 90% were counted. A good part of the past five days here has been about making sure low-income voters, who are disproportionately disenfranchised, understand and are ready to fight for their rights as voters. Under the Help America Vote Act, a citizen is a voter until proven otherwise. This is about equal protection.

“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.”

Errol says that while I haven’t convinced him

that felon disenfranchisement is unconstitutional, irrational, or undemocratic, I am convinced that the purging of elible voters from voting rolls because the state is too lazy to double-check a list is all of those things.

Whichever side you fall on on the first question, this is good news for those concerned with constitutionality, rationality, and democracy:

Florida’s top election officials conceded Tuesday that they will take no legal action to force the state’s 67 election supervisors to remove nearly 48,000 voters who have been identified by the state as potentially ineligible to vote. This means the fate of these voters, some of whom appear to have been wrongly placed on the list, will be up to the election supervisor in each county, many of whom have been hesitant so far to remove any voter from the rolls. Some supervisors have said they were unsure if they had the time or staff needed to independently verify the background of voters prior to this fall’s elections, but other supervisors have moved ahead anyway.

Hesitant they should be.

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)

The Center for Voting and Democracy reports back from the Take Back America Conference, at which it advocated the advantages of instant run-off voting (IRV) and offered participants a chance to take part in a simulated IRV election to determine the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, with Edwards winning and McCain and Dean in second and third places respectively. Don’t think they’ll be getting offered tickets to the Democratic Convention though. Which is a shame, because a political party which really put a premium on democracy would put IRV front and center in its platform (more of my thoughts on IRV are in the archive here.

(Cross-posted over at Undernews:

The past three days were my first here in Tampa working on a non-partisan voter registration campaign targeting underrepresented voting groups in the area. No one was asked about how they planned to vote. But several people – at the supermarket, at the Wal-Mart, at the gas station – made comments to me about it, including:

“I’m not voting for Bush because he doesn’t care about poor people like me. Maybe if I owned this store, I might vote for him.”

“Of course I’m voting – we need to knock Bush out of that chair while we can.”

“I’m voting for John Kerry because he wants to make my health insurance cheaper.”

“No, I’m not voting. I don’t like Bush or Kerry – neither of them cares about people like me.”

“I’m definitely not voting for Bush. But who’s the other one that’s running?”

Most of the folks I’ve talked to have a very clear idea of what they think of George Bush – generally a very, very negative one. Many fewer have a clear idea of who John Kerry is and what he’s about – and it’s not because he hasn’t run enough TV commercials. For some hurt by what these years under Bush have wrought, here and nationally, haziness about Kerry won’t make much difference in whether they show up in November. For others, it will make all the difference.