Public Anthropologies

By Emily J. Weisenberger (University of South Florida)

Americans—and many people around the world—have been anxiously awaiting the November 2018 general election results. Races for local, state, and national positions will shape the direction of the country on many social and economic issues—and will have real implications for the lives of all Americans.

However, not every American will have a voice in this election. There are more than 6.1 million citizens who are over the age of eighteen but cannot vote in this election because of a felony conviction on their record.[1] Virginia, Kentucky, Iowa, and Florida are the most punitive states, indefinitely disenfranchising people with a felony record until they successfully petition to restore their rights.

There are more than 6.1 million citizens who are over the age of eighteen but cannot vote in this election because of a felony conviction on their record. . . . This is a civil rights issue with roots in racial inequality.

This is a civil rights issue with roots in racial inequality. According to the Sentencing Project, one in thirteen African Americans have lost their right to vote as a result of felony disenfranchisement, compared to one in fifty-six non-Black voters.[2] In Florida, the numbers are more troubling. More than one in five Black Floridians have lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction.[3] In total, 1.6 million Floridians are disenfranchised due to a conviction.[4] These votes matter. Donald Trump won Florida by a mere 112,911 popular votes, giving him 29 Electoral College votes out of his total of 307.[5]

In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) went back on earlier reforms that Governor Charlie Crist (R) put into place to restore voting rights. Now, people convicted of a felony must wait five or seven years, depending on the type of felony, after their sentence or parole ends to begin petitioning for their rights to be returned.[6] Governor Scott entered office in 2011 with 150,000 such people disenfranchised. Due in large part to Governor Scott’s changes in the petitioning process, by 2016 that number had risen to 1,686,000, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.[7] Andrew Gillum, the current mayor of Tallahassee and the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, if elected would likely streamline the process to restore rights, though this would not be a permanent solution.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

During my research on racial justice activism in Tampa, Florida, I became involved with activists pursuing an amendment to the Florida constitution to restore voting rights to those with felony convictions. Because racial disparity in the criminal justice system is extreme, advocating for this amendment is a natural piece of the racial justice movement.

Two activists of color told me that voter-rights restoration would not solve their community’s problems. Presumably, they believe this because they have little faith in the American system of government or in politicians. Many more activists disagree, putting in long hours collaborating with various organizations to offer information sessions, train volunteers, and mobilize canvassing efforts. One activist who works for Color of Change, a nonprofit that is promoting the amendment, sees felony disenfranchisement as an extension of Jim Crow–era laws masquerading as a morality issue. She argues that disenfranchisement of people with felonies was put in place to stifle Black voters.

Almost one million petitions were signed to get this amendment on the general election ballot. Floridians will decide on election day if they want this amendment to become law. If passed with a 60 percent majority,[8] the voting rights restoration amendment would automatically reenfranchise people with felony convictions (excluding murder or sexual offenses) after the completion of their sentence.

Nonprofits and grassroots organizations in Florida, such as Organize Florida, Color of Change, ACLU of Florida, Restorative Justice Coalition, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and many more worked to get this amendment on the ballot. Now, we are working to persuade voters to pass it through canvassing and educational outreach.

Voting for incarcerated people without a felony record is difficult as well. Currently, many of the same activists, including the author of this blog post, are pursuing ways to fix the practical issues of voting in jail, a much more passive form of disenfranchisement and one that again has racist undertones.

In Florida, jails are not official polling locations, so people incarcerated on election day are unable to vote, unless they asked for a voter registration form by October 9 and requested an absentee ballot before October 31. Those locked in jail while legally eligible to vote are effectively locked out of voting. Combined, the legal and practical barriers to voting mean that more than the estimated 1.6 million Floridians cannot vote because of their place in the criminal justice system. This is a substantial number of people, particularly people of color, who aren’t having their voices heard.

In order to give people in jail without a felony conviction the ability to vote in this election, organizations such as the grassroots Political Education Network in Hillsborough County, Florida, and nonprofit Chicago Votes in Illinois are pursuing voter registration drives and civic classes in local jails. Private citizens and nonprofits can only amass so many resources. The next step for states may be to pass laws making jails official polling locations.

Both the campaign to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions and the effort to give voters the means to exercise a basic civic right in jail are intended to combat racism and oppression. In November, we will see if public opinion favors returning this right. In the meantime, concerned citizens can continue to educate themselves about voter suppression.[9] Disenfranchisement through sentencing and incarceration is just one type of voter suppression. As my research has shown, self-education can empower advocates. Equipped with knowledge and skills, advocates can pressure and create relationships with officials, lobby state and federal governments, and organize efforts to introduce new amendments that ensure civil rights are secured and barriers to voting are removed.










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