On November 6, voters in Florida passed a ballot measure that extends the franchise to some people with a felony conviction. Amendment 4 restores voting rights for people with a felony conviction on their record after they complete their sentence, including all terms of probation or parole and the payment of fees and restitution.
Amendment 4 does not allow for the franchise of people convicted of murder or rape. Even with this restriction, this is a watershed moment for the activists who worked tirelessly to bring about this victory, but you wouldn’t know that formerly incarcerated and incarcerated people led this fight because this has been erased in much of the reporting.
No other country in the world denies as many people in absolute or proportional terms the right to vote because of felony convictions. According to the Sentencing Project, the problem of felony disenfranchisement means that in the United States, 6.1 million people are not able to vote because of a felony conviction.
Felony disenfranchisement contradicts notions of fairness and democracy that Americans claim to value, but the numbers tell the story. This is a story that is rooted in a vision of an America that has always clung to its White Supremacist origins. Universal suffrage was not a goal of the men that “founded” this country. For many years, the right to vote had been restricted to white landed males. This changed in 1861 with the elimination of the property qualification, which expanded voting rights to people that had been previously excluded.
Felony disenfranchisement is informed by racist ideologies and cultural practices that have been deployed in the form of legal restrictions against people with felony convictions.
Incarcerated and returning citizens face restrictions on their civil rights in the form of “collateral consequences.” Collateral consequences is an academic and policy term that is used to describe an array of invisible punishments that people convicted of felonies face, including: restrictions on housing; loss of eligibility of social benefits including food stamps; restrictions on professional licensing for a number of careers including hairdresser and barber; loss of eligibility for Pell Grants; parental rights; and the loss of voting rights. This list is not exhaustive.
Many people consider the right to vote as a fundamental principle of the American democratic system. Yet, in this election, like others, there was not a single politician that raised or championed voting rights for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. Why?
For all of the talk of rehabilitation and second chances, people that have been convicted of a felony face obstacles to reintegration that have been ignored in the larger conversation on prisons, mass incarceration, and the reentry-industrial complex. Politicians do not want to be seen as supporting people that are thought of as undeserving of participation in civil society, even as they claim to represent all people.
Amendment 4 was initiated by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group led by returning citizens. This group had been working on the ground in Florida since 2014 and had achieved significant victories that began with developing a draft of the Florida Voting Restoration Amendment and culminated in the passage of Amendment 4, which extends the franchise to 1.5 million Florida citizens.
It is also important to note that incarcerated people have been calling for restoration of voting rights for years, but nowhere has this call been more clear than in the set of demands articulated by national prison strike organizers earlier this year. They demanded the restoration of “voting rights for all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called ‘ex-felons.’”
According the Sentencing Project, Florida alone accounts for more than a quarter (27 percent) of the disenfranchised population nationally. The nearly 1.5 million individuals disenfranchised after serving their sentence account for nearly half of the national total. It begs the question, how can the United States lay claim as a beacon of democracy while it sees fit to disenfranchise millions of people?
The concept of civil death dates back to the days of ancient Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic. Civil death refers to the loss of citizenship as the result of rule breaking behavior. In its postmodern application, disenfranchisement is a form of civil death and one of many collateral consequences applied to people convicted of a felony. Felony disenfranchisement is also consistent with the settler colonial conception of citizenship that holds status should be bestowed unevenly.
In the classical interpretation, citizenship—and the legal, political, and social structures that supported it—provided a rationale for a two-tiered system where citizens could be punished by the community for violating any of a number of laws, and where the withdrawal of citizenship rights represented the public’s disapproval toward rule breakers.
Under these systems, women, enslaved people, those born outside of the boundaries of the state, were not considered citizens and, by extension, not fully human or worthy of participating in civic life.
The status conferred upon citizens represented a positive endorsement by the community (even if that community was narrowly construed) that was contingent upon the continued adherence to the social contract. Violating the contract meant a loss of status, and hence honor, within society and punishment in the form of exclusion or banishment were seen as appropriate responses to impose on violators.
Today, the exclusion of people with prior convictions from civic life upholds a tradition that is deeply racist, classist, misogynist, and xenophobic, and it needs to be abolished. Disenfranchisement reflects an antiquated view that hinges on the premise that social death and exclusion somehow improve society. They do not! But disenfranchisement also means that the state is punishing people beyond their original sentence.
This raises more questions, but one that I have been concerned with for many years now is, when is the contract paid in full?
In other words, when can people with a felony conviction claim they have “returned” to society? When do they stop returning and finally arrive? Or as John Ducksworth put it, “when does reentry end?”
For many, the right to vote is an important part of reintegration that challenges the idea that formerly incarcerated people do not want to participate in civic life. Amendment 4 in Florida is a significant historic milestone that will likely shape the 2020 election, and that sets the precedent for changing voting restrictions in other states in the coming years. People impacted by incarceration will continue to chart this course and lead in their own liberation, as they have always done.