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The politics behind giving ex-cons the vote

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:28 PM

There is really no good reason for denying convicted felons the right to vote once they finish their prison sentences and resolve other obstacles to full citizenship, like completion of probation and restitution to victims.

But the state of Florida is settling for a couple of bad reasons.

The first reason amounts to "We don't have to." Last year Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet reversed the policy championed by former Gov. Charlie Crist and reinstated a lengthy and difficult process for restoring voting rights to people convicted of a felony.

The second reason is a bit more practical and political. Even if relatively few former prisoners do bother to register, it is presumed they are likely to vote for Democrats and the members of Florida's Cabinet are all Republicans. Although they would deny it, and insist they simply want felons to prove they've turned their lives around, the governor and Cabinet members have no desire to hand the other party even a few thousand votes.

Also, relaxing the restrictions would be an admission that they were wrong in raising the bar last year. No political leaders like to admit being wrong.

It's fair to point out that for all its pious homilies about justice, equality and the policy's disparate racial impact, the Florida Democratic Party has the same cynical interest in the numbers. And even though there was no chance of changing the policy in time for this year's primaries and general election, bringing it up -- loudly and often -- was a useful reminder to the Democratic base that the GOP is keeping ex-cons from automatically regaining their voting rights.

The reminder fits neatly with the overall Democratic message that Republicans are trying to "suppress" voting by blacks, college students and poor people, with measures like purging the voter rolls of non-citizens and requiring photo identification at the polls.

The argument in favor of automatic restoration of civil rights, which Crist made as governor, is that government ought to do everything it can to rehabilitate criminals. It's hard enough for a released felon to get a job and re-enter society without being forever branded as some lesser class of citizen.

If that sounds "soft on crime," then so be it. It may feel good to keep a foot on their necks a little longer, but recidivism is a high price to pay for denying former inmates the chance to fully rejoin society. Besides, most probably won't register, or vote.

Daniel Mears, a criminology professor at Florida State University, wrote in the Tallahassee Democrat last week that there's no scientific data to indicate criminals are deterred by losing their right to vote. You don't have to be a forensic scientist to figure that one out. A robber nervously thumbing his pistol and casing a convenience store might be scared off by thinking "10-20-Life" in prison, or maybe "I could get shot" by a stand-your-ground gun owner. But do you really think any thug ever paused to consider the prospect of not being able to vote?

"In addition, plausible arguments can be made that limiting the right to vote harms felons and society," Mears wrote. "For example, telling individuals who live on the margins of society that they are not real citizens potentially undermines their willingness or interest in reintegrating into communities in ways that contribute to the social good."

Another keen-eyed observer of crime and punishment, the comedian Chris Rock, did a funny bit about felons in an HBO special some 10 years ago. His facial expressions and comedic timing can't be captured in print, but Rock basically imagined hundreds of men shaking their heads, muttering; "Aw, man, voting for Al Gore! And Hillary Clinton! If it wasn't for that criminal thing, I'd be down there at 7 a.m…."

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and some leaders of the Florida NAACP stood on the Capitol steps last week and announced a campaign to change the policy that automatically bars ex-cons from the polls. It's a well-timed effort to draw attention to the situation -- and to rally Democratic and other liberal voters to turn out Nov. 6.

But it isn't going to make any long-term difference.

There's no political advantage in sticking up for criminals. And persuading a bunch of Republican legislators, the governor and the Cabinet to re-enfranchise potentially thousands of Floridians who will vote against them is just not going to happen.


Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacted at billcotterell@gmail.com.
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