Ending ban on felon vote clears hurdle. I'll believe this when I see it. And I have some doubts that it would pass. But it is still really good news that a legislative committee has approved putting the question of amending the state Constitution to restore voting rights to felons onto the next ballot.
I admit, thought, that this is somewhat baffling to my sense of how Florida politics works. What gives? Three ideas:
- Public-spiritedness has broken out in Tallahassee
- Florida Republicans think they can win black votes by taking up issues that the black community cares about
- The GOP has done focus groups, figures the issue is a loser if it gets to a state vote, and that Democrats will not only waste money and time supporting it, but can be tarred as the pro-crime party.
Alas, I have no facts on hand to tell me which if any of these is correct.
If Florida voted to enfranchise ex-felons, it would be a reversal from the last time there was a statewide vote on this issue: in November 2000, Massachusetts voters amended the state constitution to disenfranchise felons until the completion of their sentences.
As I understand it, the Florida bill would only enfranchise ex-felons, not felons. This would bring about the same situation as has existed in Mass. since 2000. Florida is moving to this half-way position form the current one of total disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons. Mass. moved the other way: prior to the 2000 state Constitutional amendment, both felons and ex-felons could vote in Mass. I cast an absentee ballot in the 1984 Mass. presidential primary from a federal prison camp in Pennsylvania, where I was “serving” a felony sentence for organizing resistance to draft registration. The camp “counselor” who was also my mail censor assumed that prisoners couldn’t vote, and was about to tear up my ballot in front of me until I prevailed on him not to risk liability for denying me the right to vote. The next day, after a call from the Mass. Secretary of State’s office concerning the Commonwealth’s concern for the voting right of its citizens, he gave me my ballot — which, to add to his embarassment, he then had to notarize as the only notary in the prison.
What was most impressive about the incident was (1) how the assumption that “felons can’t vote” almost became a self-fulfilling myth, and (2) how much my right to vote did to make the other prisoners feel a sense of being part of, rather than outcasts from, society — something that has to be rehabilitative. Other prisoners (even those from Mass., who could have voted had they been registered to vote, and known of that right) were amazed, and kept coming by my cubicle asking to see and touch my ballot.
Between 1984 and 2000, there were a variety of efforts to conduct voter registration in Mass. prisons, under another state law requiring city and town clerks to conduct on-site registrations on request of a sufficent number of petitioners in their jurisdiction.
I could still vote in Mass., if I were to move back, and can vote as an ex-felon in my current state of residence, California, but the forms are so ambiguously written that most ex-felons who read them assume they are disqualified from voting or juries.
Door number 3. I doubt that they needed focus groups to come to that conclusion. They could be wrong about whether it’s a loser or not, but I bet that’s their thinking.