Imagine being barred from voting for the rest of your life. That is the reality for too many people in this country — millions who, right now, simply don’t have the right to vote. Some will get it back, some will not. That is what felons in this country face.
Last year in Florida, a referendum known as Florida Amendment Four passed with overwhelming support, restoring ex-felons’ voting rights. Recently, the Republican legislature responded to Florida Amendment Four by introducing a bill that would require all court fees, fines and liens to be paid to restore an ex-felon’s right to vote. As a result, a group of ex-prisoners are suing, arguing that these restrictions amount to a “poll tax.”
We should all find this troubling. Paying all fines in order to vote is archaic and unnecessary. If you get a parking ticket, you don’t need to pay that off before voting, yet if you have court fees, you must. This is a major hoop for people to jump through in order to vote. In Florida, if an individual is convicted of the theft of agricultural animals, that person faces a minimum $10,000 fine per count. This means that the individual would need to pay, in full, $10,000 before voting. Inmates in the U.S. prison system are paid, on average, less than a dollar per hour of work, so any expense is next to impossible to pay. This bill proposed by the legislature is, in fact, a poll tax and we need to call it out for what it is. When we don’t confront our errors of the past, we don’t learn from them. And when we don’t call this what it is, we are neglecting the long history in this country of denying people their rightful vote.
Before I continue, we must discuss the prisoners. First of all, this amendment does not apply to those who commit murder or sexual offenses. Secondly, only focusing on this group misses the entire picture of what constitutes a felony. The full picture includes many other lesser offenses, such as those incarcerated for drug-related offenses that are punitive and unnecessary. This doesn’t even scratch the surface of institutional racism and how African Americans are targeted by our society through over-policing, the drug war and the war on crime of the 1990s.
Some may argue that we cannot trust those who have committed felonies to vote after they have served their sentences. They compare this to other crimes which result in the limiting of rights: Sex offenders still can’t get close to schools, violent offenders can be barred from buying a gun and so on. However, there is a glaring distinction to be made. Taking the right to vote away from felons does not logically follow from taking the right to a gun away from a violent offender. In the latter case, there is significant concern that the individual may commit more violent acts, but, the right to vote will allow felons to do what harm exactly? Nothing; taking away voting rights is merely a punitive solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
Taking this argument one step further, consider when prisoners are incarcerated. Their rights are curtailed while in prison. But why, exactly, are the rights to things such as freedom of speech, movement and autonomy curtailed? Society argues that this is necessary because of this logic: “The offender has broken the law. Offenders deserve to be incarcerated, and in order to incarcerate someone, some rights must be taken away — therefore, we should take some rights away from prisoners.” I will not argue against the second premise at this time; that requires a longer conversation. Instead, I argue, this conclusion has another problem with it. Even if we agreed on this argument, that would not justify taking away voting rights of prisoners because restricting voting rights is not necessary to incarcerate someone. There isn’t a danger to the prisoners, the employees or the public. It is simply punitive and unnecessary.
We should not be disenfranchising millions of people in this country. We should be expanding voting rights, not curtailing them, and that includes prisoners. This means that once someone is out of prison they should be allowed to vote. That is the whole idea behind their reintegration into civil society. But more than that, we should allow prisoners while incarcerated to vote as well. In theory, we need good reason to justify the removal of peoples rights in this country — unsubstantiated fear is not one of those.
Felons should not have their rights revoked in such a punitive way; they are still just as human as all of us. The actions of Florida’s legislature and governor do not reflect the vote that occurred last year and continue to put roadblocks in front of prisoners. Consider the irony of this: an ex-felon could be drafted into a war started by a Congress which they couldn’t have voted against. That, to me, is frightening.
Seth Gully is a sophomore triple-majoring in philosophy, politics and law, economics and French.