In 2018, 1.4 million people were granted the ability to vote. Florida passed legislation to restore voting rights, and people all over the United States deemed this to be a step towards a stronger democracy as the state with the most disenfranchised citizens, passed Amendment 4, and let ex-felons—except those who have committed murder or sexual abuse—vote. In the United States, every state other than Maine and Vermont prohibits felons from voting while in prison and almost every state does not permit felons from voting until their released, finished with parole, finished with probation, or many other obstacles that are entirely circumstantial and is dependent on each state. Disenfranchisement, is the loss of voting rights due to criminal conviction, and the remaining states to have complete disenfranchisement are Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia (ACLU).
The question several Americans are pondering is if felon disenfranchisement is eroding our democracy or is an adequate punishment for those who are convicted criminals. When defining democracy, there is a general consensus on the idea that everyone has the right to vote in fair and free elections. In the United States, a country that is the poster child of democracy, there are still limitations on voting in several states and the lack of uniformity across the country in terms of voting standardization has posed a question if the right to vote is actually the right to vote. Florida may have been one of four states that had complete disenfranchisement for felons, but there are still several states that have conditional hoops for ex-felons to jump through. In certain states, ex-felons must pay all their fines in order to register to vote or apply for the chance to be considered to be granted for voting rights in a “lottery” like set-up. In concept, it might make sense as to why ex-felons, or felons still in prison, are stripped from their right to vote, but it questions if a country can considered itself a complete democracy when there are situations where citizens do not have the right to vote or even register to vote.
We cannot talk about the disproportionality of felons without also talking about the institutional racism that is associated with the prison system in the United States. Statistically, there are more people of color, especially African Americans, who are incarcerated in the United States. It makes several wonder if the linkage between the institutional racism of mass incarceration is linked to disenfranchisement and if this is an example of how elections in the United States are not free and fair because it is leaving a large percentage of our population out as they are unfairly being incarcerated.
While it is a major step for Amendment 4 to be passed in Florida, there have been severe roadblocks for this legislation, and in October one of Florida’s judges temporarily blocked the Amendment due to the insufficient fulfillment of one of the conditions to restoring ex-felons’ right to vote—paying their fines. Florida’s courts continued to argue that it was not the state’s responsibility that ex-felons do not have the current financial means to pay off their fines and many are comparing this idea of paying their fines to poll taxes. There is a rather apparent linkage of felon disenfranchisement and democracy due to the idea that virtually not every man is able to vote in the United States under these circumstances. There is evident disproportionality in the way people of color vote and their disadvantage when it comes to institutional racism and mass incarceration. It questions the key aspects of democracy and contradicts the idea of a free and fair election.
I chose felon disenfranchisement because it reminded me of Diamond’s description of an electoral democracy and how virtually every man has the ability to vote. It’s very similar in the way that the phenomenon of voter purging is happening, but it becomes a difficult topic to discuss because there are not many people who are sympathetic towards convicted felons. Rather, there is a blatant disadvantage for a minority group in the United States and their right to vote has been stripped away. Currently, there are several legal cases that are being conducted by Legal Aid and the ACLU to argue the unconstitutional aspect of felon disenfranchisement, but every time there are milestones such as Amendment 4 there are other limitations that are presented in order to keep ex-felons away from their right to vote. Without their ability to vote, there is less contention on singular amendments in terms of criminal law within states and stunts any democratic progress within the United States due to the elimination of voters who have endured the criminal system voting on these topics. Essentially, there are almost six million people in the United States—who are otherwise eligible to vote—disenfranchised due to being a felon. Is it an honest, fair and free election if nearly six million people are unable to vote?
Great blog, Hebah. I remember being really upset when I first heard that Florida was putting up all these barriers for ex-felons, making it very difficult for them to get their rights fully restored. I think it’s certainly not a coincidence that two of the three states who still fully disenfranchise felons are swing states with the GOP controlling at least part of the state government. Do you foresee felons regaining the right to vote in those states, and how do you think the situation in Florida will resolve?
I have actually just did some research on this topic and it is extremely interesting to me. I personally believe prisoners should be able to vote, if not in jail but at least once they are free. Why is it that they have to abide by local and federal laws but they do not get to vote on if those laws should be passed? They are still citizens of the country and a crucial part of democracy is citizen participation and voting rights. American democracy should be low in these two areas because a large part of our population is not allowed to participate in the voting process.