I know I often find rather bizarre facts of interest that lead me to investigate. Last week while I was in Florida, I heard Florida was introducing a piece of legislation to permit convicted felons the right to vote. Apparently, felony disenfranchisement is not uncommon, but, to my amazement, the various 50 states have widely differing rules by which felons can or cannot vote. As I thought about it, isn’t the right to vote in a national election something that ought to be controlled by national laws? I was so wrong. The states under the 14th Amendment have those rights not specifically taken by the federal government, and the right to vote is reserved to the states.
Consequently, every state has its own rules of disenfranchisement. Those rules run from no restrictions whatsoever — Maine and Vermont, to no felons being allowed to vote at all. Then, there are states that permit felons to vote unless they are presently in prison. Some extend that to in prison, or on parole. Others widen it further to in prison, on parole or on probation for a felony.
Illinois is toward the liberal end of these laws, only prohibiting felons in prison from voting. On the other end of the spectrum, Florida prohibits any convicted felon from voting whatsoever, unless the felon appeals to a board and is granted his rights back.
Foreign countries are just as diverse. The United Kingdom excludes incarcerated criminals including courts-martial and those unlawfully at large. What? While some criminals are dumb, what at-large criminal would stop in to vote?
Ireland has no restrictions, and Italy bars voting rights for those convicted of the most serious offenses. China uses the abrogation of political rights as a form of punishment, and losing the right to vote is a part of the sentencing.
So, what is the political effect on the two-party system with these prohibitions? In 2008, more than 5.3 million felons in the United States could not vote. That is now 6.1 million. One in 13 African-Americans have lost their right to vote, and only one in 56 non-African-American citizens have lost that right. Obviously, lower income people are more likely to commit a crime such as theft, robbery and burglary, but what a huge difference in those ratios.
But what political effect does such disenfranchisement have on elections? Florida, who has the strictest laws of disenfranchisement, is generally a state where the two parties run close in their percentages of party-line voters. If one assumes more felons would vote Democratic, especially with the heavy number of excluded African-Americans, the Democratic Party would fare better if the restrictions were loosened. As close as the Bush-Gore results were, even a slight relaxation of these prohibitions would have swung the Florida vote to Gore and those electoral college votes would have seen Gore as the next President.
Well, you say, there aren’t that many affected by disenfranchisement laws. Wrong again. When I asked friends what number of felons they thought were prohibited from voting, the numbers they guessed were incredibly low. Illinois has 44,000 inmates who cannot vote, and California, which restricts those on parole as well as in prison, has more than 200,000 felons prohibited from voting.
Florida now is considering the introduction of a bill to lessen these restriction for felons. Perhaps barring only the people in prison or on parole would seem fair. But wait a minute. The governor of Florida is a Republican, and the lead U.S. Senator is Republican Mark Rubio. If there is fear these new voters would be more inclined to vote Democrat, the new easing of the restrictions could change the political makeup of that state.
In Florida, there is a process for applying to have your voting rights restored, but last week, a Florida U.S. District Court held the procedure unconstitutional. The ruling found the hearing process, controlled by elected officials, to withhold the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of people without constraints or guidelines was unconstitutional. The Justice ruled the Executive Clemency Board rights to limitless power over applicants violated their First Amendment right to free association and free expression.
As of now, Florida has no board to undo the disenfranchisement; what happens now? Can a law circumvent this autonomous executive board? Time will tell. If, however, the Republicans are in control, and these new felony voters would vote primarily Democrat, what is the chance it would pass?
Well, you argue, there aren’t that many felons in Florida. Wrong again. It is estimated if Florida were to adopt the law we have in Illinois, there would be more than 1.2 million new voters. My guess is that bill will not see the light of day.
On another note, my apologies to the Eagles fans. My column two weeks ago switched the names of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. Two of the Eagles backed up Seger in “Against the Wind.” I knew that! Then again, the article the week before was on early signs of dementia.