America's Disenfranchisement Scandal

Earlier this month, Rick Scott, Florida's new Republican governor, announced that Florida would make it harder for felons who had completed their sentences to vote. From now on, non-violent felons will have to wait five years from the completion of their sentence to even apply for their voting rights to be restored. Violent felons will have to wait seven years. It is a dramatic shift away from the reform policies implemented by Scott's more moderate predecessor, Republican Charlie Crist.

Scott's action, backed by the state's conservative Attorney General, Pam Bondi, followed that of Iowa's newly elected Republican governor Terry Branstad, who in January, in one of his first gubernatorial acts, announced an end to his predecessors' policy of granting an automatic restoral of voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences. Now Iowans with felony convictions will have to apply individually to the governor to get their right to vote restored - a process that, in practice, guarantees the state's pool of disenfranchised residents will continue to grow.

Scott and Branstad's actions are a slap in the face to democracy activists countrywide. They are also, in an era in which American forces overseas, and politicians stateside, are siding with pro-democracy movements in the Mideast and elsewhere, a stunningly short-sighted move. Making it harder for citizens to vote ought never to be a legitimate policy goal for state or federal leaders. Doing so at a time when populaces across the globe are fighting for their political rights is, quite simply, morally disastrous.

The events in Florida and Iowa come at the tail end of more than a decade of controversy. Eleven years ago, George W. Bush won the presidency after a disputed electoral outcome in the state of Florida. In the aftermath of that election, voting-rights activists, scholars, and journalists, identified a number of flaws in how Floridians voted and in whom the state allowed to vote.

For a while, the country was preoccupied with hanging chads, confusing "butterfly ballots," and a number of other technical issues that called into question the integrity of the vote count. But behind the scenes, a far more damaging corrosion of Florida's franchise had been taking place for decades: Florida was one of a dozen-plus states, most of them concentrated in the Old South, a smattering of them in the Midwest and West, which made it nearly impossible for convicted felons to regain their right to vote after they had completed their prison, parole or probation sentences - even if they had been law-abiding, tax-paying, citizens for years, in some instances even decades. In Florida, as in most of these states, the disenfranchisement codes were an embarrassing remnant of the Jim Crow-era; they had originally been put in place at least in part to keep poor and black citizens from voting.

In Florida's case, because of the explosive growth in its prison population during the 1980s and 1990s, by the year 2000 permanent disenfranchisement had prevented somewhere in the region of three quarters of a million Floridians from being able to register to vote. Not surprisingly, the overlap of the wars on crime and drugs and felon disenfranchisement had a racial and economic impact. Disproportionately, African Americans and Hispanics, as well as the poor of all races, bore the brunt of disenfranchisement. In a state in which the presidential election was determined by a few hundred votes, hundreds of thousands of men and women had been told they couldn't vote or had had their names "purged" from voter rolls. Thousands, it turned out, hadn't even been convicted of a crime: they had been erroneously scrubbed from the rolls through an over-aggressive usage of deeply flawed criminal justice and residency databases.

After the Florida debacle, felon disenfranchisement became a front-burner issue for civil rights groups, ballot box-access organizations, and an increasing number of political leaders concerned about protecting the integrity of the nation's voting processes. For, when one started crunching the numbers, it turned out that in states with permanent disenfranchisement upwards of a quarter of African American male adults were voteless. In some states, including Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama, the numbers were even more dire.

In state after state in the years following the 2000 election, felon disenfranchisement codes were modified; waiting periods for re-enfranchisement were reduced or eliminated, and education efforts were launched to inform low-income communities, in which huge percentages of the population have felony convictions -- often for low-end drug crimes -- of their voting rights.

Some of the rhetoric around re-enfranchisement was noble; framed in terms of basic small-d, democratic rights, and re-engaging onetime law-breakers with their communities (many criminologists believe giving people real stakes in their communities is an effective crime-fighting strategy in and of itself). Some of the discourse was more pragmatic; lower income and African American populaces disproportionately go big-d Democratic in elections, and keeping millions of such citizens from voting was, experts estimated, tamping down Democratic Party support by a percentage or two -- enough to determine the outcome of many close elections, including that of the Presidential election in 2000.

In Florida, Republican governor Charlie Crist took the principled decision to lubricate the state's rusty re-enfranchisement process, ensuring that hundreds of thousands of Floridians would have the opportunity to participate in their state's political process. He recognized that the moral stakes were large enough to make re-enfranchisement a crucial issue, even if the change risked hurting his own political party at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, the new breed of Republican governors and state legislators appear to be ignoring the broader democratic calculus, concentrating instead on the pragmatics: if re-enfranchisement benefited Democrats, a new wave of disenfranchisement will likely benefit Republicans. It is a shameful, and a profoundly hypocritical, calculus.