What Kind of Democracy Is This?
We’re big fans of democracy. We even made an ice cream flavor celebrating access to the ballot in 2016. But the thing about democracy is that it only works if it works for everyone, and here in America, more than 6 million citizens have had their voting rights taken away due to a felony conviction. So that means we’re telling millions of people—our coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family members—that one mistake relegates them to a lifetime of second-class citizenship. And we think that’s wrong.
Every State Is Different
Before we go any further, we just have to come out and say it: the American voting system is odd. No unified national voting standard exists, nor is there any standard for how to handle voting for people who’ve been convicted of a felony. Each state tackles it differently, which leads to a lot of confusion and lots of different laws.
Vermont, for example, allows people serving time to cast an absentee ballot from their prison cell.
But if someone were to be convicted of the same crime in Florida, then she might never be allowed to vote again.
Florida is one of the worst offenders when it comes to denying democracy to its citizens—in fact, it’s one of only four states that take away voting rights from returning citizens permanently. About 1.5 million people who have a prior felony conviction have been stripped of their right to vote in the Sunshine State. Things are so bad that, back in February, a federal judge declared Florida’s system unconstitutional.
The Rights of Every Citizen
Federal Judge Mark Walker’s blunt decision (he called Florida’s defense of its “scheme” “nonsensical”) joins a chorus of dissatisfaction with the current system from all over Florida. After all, returning citizens are people who have done their time, completed their sentence, and are ready and eager to reenter the life of the community. They want to work. They want to provide for their families. Finally, they rightly expect to be able to exercise their basic rights as American citizens—and there’s no more basic right than voting.
In Florida, whether those rights will be restored basically depends entirely on Governor Rick Scott, who controls every aspect of the process. Returning citizens have to wait five years before even being able to apply to reclaim those basic rights, and numerous and lengthy delays are guaranteed. Scott and the clemency board meet only four times a year, usually considering fewer than 100 cases each time. The wait can extend to decades—Florida currently faces a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.
But this isn’t just about voting rights. It’s a a href="https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/racism-felony-disenfranchisement-intertwined-history" target="_blank">racial justice issue as well. Across the country, 1 in 13 Black people of voting age are unable to vote due to a felony conviction. In Florida, that number is more than 1 in 5. None of this happened by accident. States, like Florida, passed laws that locked newly freed slaves out of the voting process after the end of the Civil War. This effort to deny basic rights to people of color extended through the Jim Crow period and persists to this very day.
Everybody Deserves a Second Chance
The a href="https://secondchancesfl.org/" target="_blank">Second Chances Campaign is leading the charge to end this injustice. They drafted an amendment, barnstormed all over the state, and gathered more than 799,000 certified signatures, qualifying it for the November 2018 ballot.
If 60% of Florida voters approve it this fall, the Voting Restoration Amendment will restore the voting rights of 1.5 million Floridians (the amendment excludes those who have committed murder or sexual offenses.). It will change lives, strengthen families and communities, and create a more just and fair democracy.
What You Can Do
Our friend, Desmond Meade, has dedicated his life to this issue. He has a law degree, but because of a prior felony conviction, he can’t practice. And he couldn’t vote for his wife when she ran for office last year.
Rights like the right to vote aren’t rewards, they’re not something you earn. They belong to us, to all of us, to Desmond and every other returning citizen. This goes beyond politics—it’s about who we are as Americans.
We believe in second chances. We believe in a democracy that works—in Florida and all across the country. Here’s how you can help: