by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
(PNS) -- In a rousing speech at the recent Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner, Democratic presidential contender John Kerry warned that Republicans might again try to snatch victory by vote manipulation, fraud and intimidation of black voters in Florida and other battleground states.
What Democrats screamed loudest about in 2000 was the purge of ex-felons from Florida's voting rolls. A majority of them were black. In the state, blacks voted by a 9 to 1 margin against Bush.
If a majority of the thousands of ex-felons Florida officials systematically dumped from the polls had voted, the likelihood is Bush's razor -thin 537 vote win would have quickly evaporated and Gore would have grabbed the state and the White House.
Kerry need not fear an exact repeat of 2000. Florida Governor Jeb Bush has grudgingly pledged there will be no vote shenanigans with ex-felons eligible to vote. But even if the elections in Florida and the other 16 battleground states are squeaky clean it might not bolster Kerry's chances to beat Bush. All of these states wholly or partially ban an estimated 2 million ex-felons from voting. About 30 percent of them are black. If they could vote, most would probably vote Democratic. In the four most crucial swing states, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Missouri, the majority of the ex-felons are black. Their disfranchisement is a huge plus for Bush and a major obstacle for Kerry.
In 2000, Bush and Gore won several states by less than 10,000 votes. The few thousand missing votes of the ex-felons could again spell victory for Bush in those states. While the Democrats feverishly mount minority voter registration drives, recruit poll monitors, and threaten lawsuits to ensure a fair election, they are powerless to do anything about the ineligible thousands of potential Democratic votes they stand to lose. And that includes Florida. While Jeb Bush agreed not to purge eligible ex-felons from the voting rolls, ex-felons still must appeal to state officials to have their voting rights restored. This is a long, and torturous process with no assurance of success for those individuals who bother to try.
Florida is not unique in perpetuating this odious and archaic public policy. The reform attempts to restore felonsvoting rights have moved with glacial speed, stalled or been reversed in other states. Since 1998, four states have enacted laws that bar ex-felons from voting or place restrictions on their reinstatement. Though Republicans appear to be the biggest beneficiary of the ex-felon voting bans, Democrats have not led the charge to get the laws dumped.
In a 2002 poll, the Sentencing Project found that a majority of Americans support giving felons back the vote. Yet many Democrats have been loath to propose legislation to lift the bans. They are scared stiff of being publicly labeled as soft on crime. Congress has been no better. In 1999, a handful of mostly black Democrats proposed the Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act. The law would restore voting rights to ex-felons in federal elections. The act got little support, and quickly died. It was reintroduced last year. But in a hotly contested presidential election year, there is no chance of its passing.
With the exception of the Florida challenges, civil liberties groups and civil rights organizations have also been virtually mute on the issue. They have filed few lawsuits and have not mounted any sustained lobbying campaign in Congress or state legislatures to get the discriminatory voting laws changed. Many conservatives passionately defend the policy of ex-felon disenfranchisement. They claim that barring criminals from voting sends the strong message that if you break the law you should pay, and continue to pay. To some the argument makes most sense if all or most of the disenfranchised ex-felons were convicted murderers, rapists, or robbers, and they were denied the vote because of a court-imposed sentence. This is not the case. A significant number of ex-felons were jailed for non-violent crimes such as drug possession, passing bad checks, or auto theft.
None of the states that bar felons from voting in near perpetuity require that judges strip them of their voting rights as part of their sentence based on the seriousness of the crime or the severity of the punishment. In most instances ex-felons have fully served their sentence and have paid their debt to society. Imprinting them with the legal and social stigma of hereditary criminals and banning them from voting until death mocks the notion that once prisoners pay their debt to society they deserve a second chance.
The denial of the vote on dubious legal grounds to a growing number of adults whose votes might determine the outcome of a close and pivotal presidential election is no less shameful. In 2004, it won't take vote machinations by Florida state officials to make or break a president. The ex-felon vote bans in states may do that.
September 8, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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