By Nancy Smith
The felons’ voting-rights tug-of-war showcases the worst — the very worst — of America’s political parties. Who gets to vote should be driven by citizenship, the spirit of the United States Constitution and all America stands for, not by blowhardism and dirty tricks.
Neither party before or since Amendment 4 has summoned its better angels.
But I must tell you, I think the Republicans in the Legislature have really blown this one.
First, the argument for keeping the incarcerated and the newly released off the voting rolls is based on an archaic punitive disciplinary structure. We should have moved on from that a long time ago. Clinging to a wrong-headed facet of our electoral process just to deny voting rights to an estimated 1.5 million of the state’s eligible voters — 3 percent of the nation’s — is a structure no democratic country, let alone a strong, self-confident republic like ours, should tolerate.
The Florida Legislature wants to require people with felony convictions to pay back all court fines and fees before registering to vote.
This requirement will prevent hundreds of thousands of ex-felons from ever in their lives voting. Heck, they won’t even try. Why? Because they won’t be able to afford it. Florida charges defendants “user fees.” That’s how we finance our criminal justice system. We saddle them with massive fines as soon as they’re convicted. Most defendants fall down a financial hole from which they can never escape.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “Floridians convicted of a felony have to pay to obtain a public defender ($100 to $1,000) and to reinstate a suspended driver’s license ($60 to $500). Receive medical treatment in prison? You’re on the hook for the cost. You can pay it out of your inmate bank deposit, but maintaining banking services behind bars will cost you $6 a month.”
People who entered prison poor sink deeper once inside. They come out of prison buried in a crushing debt.
I ask you honestly, would you tolerate court-cost-and-fee restrictions like these if they were imposed on your free speech, free assembly, freedom of religion or freedom to petition government for redress of grievances? How about your freedom from “unreasonable” searches, or the right to counsel? Of course you wouldn’t. You would be the first to scream, “This is America! This shouldn’t be happening!”
It’s true, the “right to vote” is a kind of stepchild in the family of American rights, which is why each state individually gets to define what that means.
But it’s especially unsavory to me, who grew up believing the vote and citizenship were synonymous. Both sacred. My grandmother was one of the original marching, sign-carrying New England suffragettes. I was inspired by her stories of fighting for women’s rights. The Constitution may not have given women voting rights either — at least, not specifically — but it inspired millions of people like my grandmother to super-patriotism and an abiding pride in this nation. Listening to her stories, she became one of the great heroes of my life.
I also think the largely Republican Legislature keeps shooting itself in the foot when it fails to follow the will of the voters. The felons’ voting rights bill is 2016’s Amendment 2 — The Florida Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative — all over again.
Some 71.32 percent of the voters in 2016 explicitly approved allowing medical marijuana as a treatment for patients with a laundry list of specific diseases. The voters had spoken. That should have been it. But instead of working to make it happen as soon as possible, Republican lawmakers did their darndest to throw obstacles up. Voters expressed their anger by electing marijuana lobbyist and cheerleader Nikki Fried over Rep. Matt Caldwell, albeit by a narrow margin.
If a felon serves his time and returns to society, he ought to be able to engage as a citizen and vote. In fact, he should be encouraged to. That voter’s card is the one card in his wallet that shouldn’t cost a thing. Whether he decides to vote at election time is anybody’s guess. But I’m thinking felons are probably as motivated as the rest of Florida’s eligible voters: A guaranteed 40 percent of them will show up at the polls — if it’s not raining.
Republicans would get a bigger boost by laying down their arms, walking a higher road, and developing a program to connect with ex-felons. They have the better agenda.
Nancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.