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April 08, 2007

Florida to let felons vote

Bravo to Florida governor Charlie Crist for persuading his state's clemency board to let most felons regain their voting rights after they get out of jail:

Florida has as many as 950,000 disenfranchised ex-offenders — far more than any other state — the vast majority black. Other states have repealed or scaled back similar bans in recent years, but roughly five million felons remain barred from the polls nationwide.

The ban, added to Florida’s Constitution in 1868, has been the subject of especially bitter debate since the 2000 presidential election. Some legal voters were removed from the state’s rolls that year after being misidentified as felons, adding to the drama of a recount that gave George W. Bush a razor-thin margin of victory over Al Gore.

Only two other states, Kentucky and Virginia, constitutionally require all felons to forfeit their voting rights. A federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Florida’s ban made its way to the United States Supreme Court in 2005, but the court declined to hear the case.

Until now in Florida, most felons who finished prison and probation time had to submit to a lengthy review and waiting period, and sometimes an investigation and hearing, if they wanted to regain the right to vote.

Under the new rules, the roughly 80 percent of ex-offenders whose crimes were not considered violent will win automatic rights restoration after the state makes sure they have paid any restitution to victims and have no pending criminal charges. [NYT]

It's outrageous that so many states strip all convicted felons of voting rights for life. Why should a 3-month sentence for burglary strip you of your voting rights for as long as you live?

One of the more annoying shibboleths I hear from self-styled law and order types is: "If you're a felon, you lose your rights."

That saying is irritating because it's question-begging. We all agree that felons lose some rights for a certain amount of time. That's almost part of the definition of a state-imposed punishment... For example, if you're imprisoned, you lose your right to be free of restraint for the duration of your sentence. On the other hand, you don't lose all your rights just because you're in jail. You certainly don't lose all your rights forever after you served your sentence.

Another popular law and order saying is, "If you do the crime, you do the time." I don't mind that one so much because it suggests that there is a set time that you have to do. Once you've done the time, you should be allowed to return to society, having paid your debt.

If states want to suspend people's voting rights while they're actually in jail or on parole or probation, that's at least defensible. Maybe it's fair to exclude people from voting as part of their punishment. Also, if legislators want to write vote-stripping provisions into specific criminal statutes, that's fine too. Let the politicians take responsibility for saying who is so bad that they have to be cast out of democracy for life.

In Florida, sex offenders and murderers probably won't get their voting rights back. That's a reasonable compromise. There's a world of difference between a non-violent drug offender and a serial murderer. I would prefer that we didn't make voting rights conditional, but if we're prepared to strip some rights (like freedom of movement) as punishment, I don't see a categorical reason to take loss of voting rights off the table when it comes to punishing various crimes.

Allowing felons to vote is also an important brake on abuses of state power. Normally, politicians have to make cost-benefit calculations when they pander to the electorate. If you shaft one contingency to please another, the shafted group may strike back and vote you out. However, if you arrange to prevent the people who might have a grudge against you from ever voting again, you're home free. That's the enviable position of many so-called "tough on crime" politicians who make a big show of charging more people with crimes, or subjecting convicted criminals to ever-harsher punishments.


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"If states want to suspend people's voting rights while they're actually in jail or on parole or probation, that's at least defensible. Maybe it's fair to exclude people from voting as part of their punishment."

Wrong. Adult citizens should always be allowed to vote. That is democratic. They are being affected by society while in prison, on parole, and on probation, and therefore should participate in choosing representatives.

We want people who commit crimes to care MORE about society, not less. Letting them vote is one part of keeping them connected.

If we send a message to them society hates you now then they are more likely to re-offend.

Vermont is right. Let people vote even when in prison.

I think its fair game if people who talk like what I think 'bad dudes' talk like can be treated like felons if not worst. Society should not give them any privacy. It should not trust them and take everything they say in the worst possible way. It should make sure they don't get anything out of society that make a human life worth living. Whats most important of course is unity, society should unite in this great cause. Until now my comment has been fairly reasonable. Allow for one unreasonable thought: race does not play a role in the judicial process whatsoever.

One of your best essays in a while Lindsay. I'm inclined to mostly agree with Eric Jaffa, however, in that even prisoners are being affected by the decisions made in a democratic society. Let's say I was serving a ten year sentence for second-degree murder, and then an amendment is proposed to my state's constitution in which ALL murder convictions are increased to life without parole, no grandfather clause. (Wyoming's constitution allows the general electorate to vote on amendments.) I would hope I would have some say in this decision. Sure, I'm being punished, by why should I have to be punished again after I've already been sentenced?

I propose one notable exception to Eric Jaffa's universal suffrage proposition: Exclude those convicted of voting fraud. I think those who would actively seek to undermine democracy are in effect saying that they don't really believe in it, and therefore should forfeit their voting rights for life. Just one man's opinion.

BTW, Sunday is normally my day of rest from commenting, so I hope you appreciate me violating my agnostic beliefs to do this. I usually wait until Sunday evening to resume commenting. That's when my agnostic Sabbath ends. I guess.

Thanks, John.

Eric, if it were up to me, I wouldn't take the vote away from prisoners at all. I agree that anything that makes prisoners care more about society is a good thing.

I'm just not sure about the legal/constitutional question of whether suspension of voting rights can be a lawful punishment. No doubt the answer varies by jurisdiction. I believe prisoners have the constitutional right to vote in Canada, for example.

There are a lot of punishments that are constitutional, but which I don't support (for moral or practical reasons).

They have that right in Israel. At least for a while, every election after Rabin's murder there was media coverage of his killer's voting from within prison, usually accompanied by his mother's plea for clemency and some Member of Knesset's trying to pass a law denying the President the power to pardon anyone who's killed a serving Prime Minister of Israel.

This is such a stunning step forward from a Republican governor that I think I'm too taken aback to further press the case for people on probation or parole. It's a remarkably un-cynical move.

Let felons vote? Why not? They let *Republicans* vote!

I had not put on my glasses before I started to read.
"Florida to let fetus vote" [yeah, very strong prescription!] Reading it that way was surprising but knowing what a political freak show Florida has been, it did not seem nearly as odd as what I saw when I got my glasses.

The appeal for 'law 'n' order' candidates to deny the vote to prisoners all makes sense now: the portion of the population most affected by their platform are effectively disenfranchised, can't affect policy, and can't resist the politicians' bullying tactics. Cute. Makes you wonder who most belongs on the inside of the bars! I agree: letting them vote is one part of keeping them *in* society.

What a bloggy echo chamber.

If you think this is an echo chamber, you haven't been to... well, almost every blog on Lindsay's blogroll (start with Pandagon, Feministing, and Pharyngula).

"Many countries have disenfranchisement of sentenced prisoners. In the United States, voting privileges are denied to prisoners by some states, but several other countries (including most countries of the European Union) allow all prisoners to vote, regardless of time served and nature of the crime." (Wikipedia: Suffrage)

Hmm, I've never heard of any political debate dealing with disenfranchisement of sentenced prisoners in Germany and from a democracy theoretic point of view, this idea sounds rather absurd to me (suspension of active voting rights for two to five years is only theoretically possible in extreme cases of treason or vote fraud). Universal suffrage is typically seen as an essential democratic necessity too important to frivolously play with. The only restriction which is undisputable is the temporarly suspension of passive voting rights for convicts given prison sentences of one year at least.

The law was created in the Jim Crow era. The changes almost didn't hapen at all because of Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Here is a quick version of how it breaks down.

Level 1: Felons who have committed less-severe offenses. Restoration of rights would be nearly automatic for those who have fulfilled their sentences, paid restitution and aren't facing other charges.

Level 2: Those who have committed severe offenses other than murder or sex crimes. They'd face a state "mid-level" investigation forwarded to the state clemency board, which would then have 30 days to decide whether to restore rights.

Level 3: Felons convicted of murder, sex offenses and related crimes, as well as any people rejected from Level 2. They would have to petition the state and go through a full investigation and appearance before the clemency board.

NOTE: The civil rights being restored are the right to vote, serve on a jury, hold public office and apply for occupational licenses. Gun-permit rights would not be restored.

There is an issue of felons having to pay restitution to get their rights back. Handgun ownership rights will not be restored.

These are the people who will not get rights restored.

4. Never been convicted of one of the following crimes (Violent crimes - Antimurder crimes minus burglary and robbery plus drug trafficking):

a. murder, attempted murder, attempted felony murder,
manslaughter (F.S. Chapter 782);
b. DUI manslaughter (F.S. 316.193(3));
c. sexual battery, attempted sexual battery (F.S. 794.011)
d. lewd or lascivious battery, attempted lewd or lascivious battery, lewd or lascivious molestation, lewd or lascivious conduct, or lewd or lascivious exhibition (F.S. Chapter 800);
e. lewd or lascivious offense upon or in the presence of an elderly or disabled person, attempted lewd or lascivious offense upon or in the presence of an elderly or disabled person (F.S. 825.1025);
f. sexual performance by a child, attempted sexual performance by a child (F.S. 827.071);
g. aggravated child abuse (F.S. 827.03);
h. failure to register as a sexual predator or sexual offender (F.S.
i. computer pornography, transmission of computer pornography, buying or selling of minors (F.S. Chapter 847);
j. kidnapping, attempted kidnapping, false imprisonment, or luring
and enticing a child (F.S. Chapter 787);
k. aggravated battery, attempted aggravated battery (F.S. 784.045);
l. armed robbery, attempted armed robbery, carjacking, attempted carjacking, home invasion, attempted home invasion (F.S. Chapter
m. poisoning of food or water (F.S. 859.01);
n. abuse of a dead human body (F.S. 872.06);
o. first degree burglary or attempted first degree burglary (F.S.
p. arson or attempted arson (F.S. 806.01);
q. aggravated assault (F.S. 784.021);
r. aggravated stalking (F.S. 784.048);
s. aggravated battery or aggravated assault on a law enforcement
officer or other specified officer (F.S. 784.07);
t. first degree trafficking in illegal substances (F.S. 893.135);
u. aircraft piracy (F.S. 860.16);
v. unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a destructive device
or bomb (F.S. 790.161);
w. facilitating or furthering terrorism (F.S. 775.31);
x. treason (F.S. 876.32); or
y. any offense committed in another jurisdiction that would be an
offense listed in this paragraph if that offense had been committed in
this State.

5. The person has not been declared to be one of the following:

a. Habitual Violent Felony Offender;
b. Three-time Violent Felony Offender;
c. Violent Career Criminal;
d. Prison Releasee Reoffender;
e. Sexual Predator.

Taking away a right to vote essentially negates the purpose of democracy- which is "to include". It isn't about a hierarchy of "the good"... it's about "we, the people"- good, bad, indifferent & clueless- the whole mob. For those who feel that such a description doesn't fit their purrview (meow), there are other "-ocracies" that might be a better fit- eg meritocracy, kleptocracy, plutocracy, etc.

Alon: To be fair, the empty two-million-gallon cistern in which "Deep Listening" was recorded was less of an echo chamber than Pandagon.

IF you are self publishing [e.g. blogging] edit that portion of the work that you want to be found via search engines in your usual way and publish it as marked up text in the usual way. But edit the pay dirt, the parts you don't want others to easily copy or take credit for in something like microsoft Paint or any other tool in which text can be edited but then rendered and saved in a choice of image file formats. This will make the content invisible to search engines, watermarkable and much more of a pain to rip off. Just use an image format that is web compliant: gif, jpg or png. You can probably edit the whole piece in your favorite text tool and if there is not a lot of artsy text layout, just past the pay dirt into a text tool in the graphics program. It might even encourage a few people to link to you instead of cutting and pasting your work. It also makes it harder for quote miners to take things out of context because you bind the context into the image.

Uh, thanks for the (totally off-topic) tip.

Anyway, I'm astounded that the right was taken away in the first place. If you have a right, you have a right, full stop.

The New York Review of Books April 12, 2007 on the subject:

However much voting matters to felons, their voting matters to the country. If felons were allowed to vote, the United States would have a different president. Disproportionately poor and black, felons choose Democrats in overwhelming numbers —giving them between 70 percent and 85 percent of their votes in presidential elections. Had they been allowed to vote in 2000, the authors estimate, Al Gore's margin in the popular vote would have doubled to a million. If Florida had allowed just ex-felons to vote—those who can claim to have paid their debt to society—Gore would have carried the state by 30,000 votes and with it the electoral college. (This estimate uses conservative assumptions: a 27 percent turnout with a 69 percent Democratic preference).

I’ll slip pleasantly to sleep tonight thinking about Jeb and George Bush, Kathrine Harris, Karl Rove, et al. grinding their teeth to powder over this.

I don't really care about whether not allowing felons to vote or not is going to isolate them or drive them to further crime. To me, that's really not the point. Voting can't be a privilege. If your society makes voting a privilege, then your society will eventually an inevitably fall into dictatorship. When voting is a matter up for debate, it doesn't matter how often you expand voting rights. In the end, it still means the state has the right to take your ability to vote away as surely as they granted it. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the danger in that, and to recognize this as a serious flaw in our system.

Voting rights are just one of many rights that convicted criminals lose when they're in jail or prison. What about the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery? Notice the exception?

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Slavery is completely legal if the person being forced to work is incarcerated. All criminals lose a great deal of their "inalienable" rights when they are incarcerated, felons or not.

I don't see a case for permanent removal of voting rights from anyone unless they are convicted of vote fraud or public corruption, in which case they should lose not just the right to vote, but also the right to participate in the political process. That means no working on campaigns, no donations to candidates or parties, and no employment in any government capacity whatsoever.

Taking away someone's right to vote simply as a way to heighten the punishment is profoundly misguided. I suspect that if the question was removing the right to keep and bear arms from people convicted of nonviolent crimes we'd see a sudden reversion to fundamental principles from the people who are so eager to strip convicts of the vote.

What a bloggy echo chamber.

If you think this is an echo chamber . . .

less of an echo chamber than Pandagon.

Good point . . . point . . . point . . .

Feel free to post any intelligent, substantive, fact-based commentary you may have.

Take as long as you need.

Colorado just passed a bill out of the Senate to let parolees vote, but I hear it may have trouble with House DEMOCRATS, fer Godssake. Besides re-enfranchisement being the right thing to do from a re-entry, rehabilitation and public safety perspective, some folks don't know where their bread is buttered.

You know, if I ever say something critical about Pandagon and two days pass without Some Lame Guy showing to defend Amanda Marcotte's honor, I'll know the apocalypse has begun.

Thanks for reassuring me that civilization continues apace, Kevin!

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