WASHINGTON – Those of us who participated in the 2000 presidential election are getting political PTSD from the current gubernatorial and senatorial recounts in Florida.
President George W. Bush was eventually declared the winner in the Sunshine State (and thus the election) by 537 votes out of about 6 million cast. But for 35 long days of counting and challenging and pleading, it was mainly the lawyers in charge.
During this period, Bush did a lot of brush clearing on his Crawford, Texas, ranch. The bloody scratches on his arms indicated how his frustration was being unleashed against unlucky cedar trees.
Nearly two decades later, the Florida electorate is still balanced on a political knife’s edge. Yet one measure passed in the midterm by a lopsided margin, and may have a larger, more lasting influence. Voters approved Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution by a majority of nearly 65 percent. This returned voting rights to more than a million people who have committed felonies (other than murder or sex offenses) and served their time. It was the largest expansion of the franchise since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and women’s suffrage.
The U.S. Constitution specifically allows for the suspension of voting rights for those guilty of “participation in rebellion, or other crime.” But after passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments – mandating equal political rights for African-American men – restricting voting rights became a priority for the forces of Jim Crow. In legal systems that routinely arrested and convicted black people on thin or false charges, bans on voting by felons were effective tools to ensure white supremacy.
Not many states now retain lifelong voting bans. The more frequent debate today concerns whether people on probation and parole should be allowed to vote. But these types of limitations (before Florida’s change) still prevented voting by one in 40 adults in America, and one in 13 African-Americans. Amendment 4 solved about a quarter of this problem.
The arguments against felony voting bans are ultimately simple. How can you tell a man or woman leaving prison that they have paid their debt to society and yet deny them the most basic right of a self-governing citizen?
The denial of voting rights is a way to mark a returning citizen with an invisible scar or brand of stigma and suspicion. It says that we share some geography, but not really a community. And this type of distrust, or half trust, is an invitation to recidivism.
Right out of college, I worked at an organization named Prison Fellowship Ministries, which did outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. My boss was Charles Colson, who had been incarcerated for crimes related to the Watergate scandal. He wrote: “I served time in a federal prison. And while I paid my debt to society in less than a year, it took me 30 years to have my voting rights restored. Maybe I’m not a good example, having been part of a national political scandal. But what about a young person, say, in his early 20s, who is convicted of three minor drug offenses? Once he serves his time, grows up and straightens out his life, should he be denied the right to vote again? ... Demonizing an entire class of Americans for electoral gain is wrong.”
Republicans have often opposed measures to expand the franchise, for fear it would hurt them politically.
There are two ways to respond to the hostility of minority voters toward the GOP. First, try to restrict the franchise through stealthy means. This is undemocratic, unethical and eventually discrediting. Or second, compete for minority voters in a fairly constituted electorate. Republicans who find this impossible are practicing politics without inspiration, imagination and faith.
Beyond the political calculation is a moral question: When we talk about second chances in this country, do we really mean it? The voters of Florida have given their answer – not in a squeaker, but a landslide.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.