Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ex-Felons and The Right to Vote

New Florida Rules Return More Than 115,000 To Voting Rolls:

MIAMI — Gov. Charlie Crist announced on Tuesday that 115,232 Florida felons had regained their voting rights since new rules took effect last April, but 80 percent of the state’s disenfranchised ex-offenders remain off the rolls.

The governor — a Republican who had initially pushed for a broader clemency program — said he was proud of the progress and hoped the number of those regaining voting rights would increase.

“Once somebody has truly paid their debt to society, we should recognize it, and we should honor it and we should welcome them back into society and give them that second chance,” Mr. Crist told a crowd of law enforcement officials and advocates for prisoners’ rights in Tallahassee.

“That could make an enormous difference in November,” he said.

As it did, no doubt, in the presidential election in Florida in November of 2000. In fact, thanks to the closeness of that election and its outcome, the entire discussion of allowing persons who have paid their debt to society the right to vote, came back to the fore in penological literature.

So why do we do freeze former criminals out of the voting booth? Marc Mauer suggests that the idea of prohibiting them from voting comes from medieval Europe, where criminals were seen as a threat to disrupt the voting process (via harassment) and so, as a form of "civil death," were restricted from voting and the vicinities of polling places. Here in the states, disenfranchisement laws and racial exclusion became the norm following Reconstruction, particularly in the south, and well into the 20th century.

As Mauer notes, "It is long past time for the United States, as the Western democracy with the lowest rate of voter participation, to consider means of bringing more Americans into the electoral process rather than excluding large groups of citizens."

I realize it's hard to get worked up over the right to vote, particularly in a country where less than half of eligible voters go to the polls regularly. But with the controversy over Voter ID laws and the attendant exclusionary effect it may be having, it's good to see Florida and its elected officials doing something positive to bring disenfranchised groups back to the table of democracy.

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