The midterm elections are about more than just which party will control Congress and state governments around the country. In many states, voters will also get to participate in direct democracy by voting on ballot measures to change state policies.
Florida voters will be asked to decide on one major policy change in 2018 through a ballot measure that would automatically restore the voting rights of most of the formerly incarcerated. In 48 states across the country, individuals convicted of a felony lose their right to vote when they are incarcerated. In the vast majority of these states, those citizens will regain the right to vote at the completion of either their prison term, parole or probation. But a select few permanently disenfranchise all people with felony convictions, even after they have paid their debt to society. The worst state in terms of the sheer number of people impacted is Florida.
Of the 6.1 million Americans who cannot vote due to these disenfranchisement laws, 1.68 million of them live in Florida. That is 27 percent of the nation’s total (although Florida is only 6.4 percent of the total U.S. population). African-Americans are disproportionately affected by these laws, and at this point 21 percent of African-Americans in Florida are unable to vote due to them. These Floridians can only regain their Constitutional rights by petitioning the governor, but since Rick Scott has taken office, he has only approved fewer than 3,000 restorations out of nearly 30,000 applications.
Per the state’s ballot initiative rules, it will need 60 percent of the vote to pass. That means it will need wide support across the ideological spectrum. According to 2014 exit polls, that midterm electorate last time around was 40 percent moderate, 37 percent conservative, and 22 percent liberal. The first poll on the measure was released in early February by the University of North Florida. It found that 71 percent of voters initially support the measure, while only 22 percent oppose.
There are two reasons that permanently denying those who were formerly incarcerated the right to vote is a noxious and anti-American policy.
The first is that the justice system is one that is based on the idea to we can rehabilitate people who have committed crimes. Once people have served their time, we should want them to be productive and engaged members of community. This is a crucial way to reintegrate them into society.
The second is that while there is limited research on this topic, a 2003 study found that there might be a link between voting and recidivism. In the study of the formally incarnated, 27 percent of non-voters were rearrested in a four-year period compared to just 12 percent of voters. That is a more than 50 percent drop in likelihood to reoffend. While it’s preliminary, this begins to show that granting voting rights to the formally incarcerated works.
The success of these policies can be seen in another “purple” state as well: Virginia. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe was a champion on this issue during his time in office. When the state courts said he couldn’t restore voting rights en masse but only on a case-by-case basis, McAuliffe signed about 170,000 individual orders to restore voting rights to people who had been incarcerated in the past. It was a policy of which McAuliffe was so proud that his official state portrait featured the individually signed documents that restored these rights. And the governor of this purple, Southern state didn’t appear to suffer any political consequences from this decision. McAuliffe left office with a job approval rating that was a net positive 11 points – not too shabby for any politician nowdays. His handpicked successor, Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam, ran in favor of continuing the initiative while his opponent attacked him in television ads over McAuliffe’s actions. Northam won the general election by 9 points.
The simple truth is that justice delayed is justice denied. We should not allow states to deny this crucial right to those who have served their time. We should do everything we can to make sure those who want to successfully reenter society can do so – and that includes choosing who represents them in our representative government.