An African-American man in his seventies was pushed in his wheelchair into an auxiliary building owned by the New Birth Baptist Church in the Little Haiti section of Miami on June 13 seeking to become a full citizen of the United States. This building was not an immigration office but rather a workshop put together by Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson to help ex-offenders regain their voting rights. This particular ex-offender had one felony conviction from the 1990s and a 2010 letter from the Florida Parole Commission saying that his application was in the process. He had received no follow up since that 2010 letter.
This gentleman was amongst the dozens of other ex-offenders in the room who were waiting in line to see Florida Rights Restoration Coalition President, Desmond Meade, and others to get to see how they could get their voting rights restored. After paying their debt to society, they were still deprived of full citizenship. Full citizens have the right to vote. Another man told the story of having gone back to school at a local university and gotten a degree. He was now married and living a productive life but still does not have the right to vote. The sad fact is that there are over one million former felons in Florida who are disenfranchised The majority of the felony convictions are related to drugs.
If you are ever convicted of a felony in the state of Florida then you might as well change your name to Dred Scott because when it comes to voting you have no rights that the state is bound to respect. The arduous process of getting the right to vote restored is often littered with delays and follow up that is sporadic if an ex-offender is fortunate enough to get any at all. This discourages many ex-offenders from even beginning the process. Laws such as these are evidence of the irrationality that often accompanies public policymaking.
This type of legislation exposes a severe empathy deficit amongst a segment of lawmakers. Empathy involves having compassion for the plight of other people whose experience does not mirror their own. Whether this is the person who does not have access to adequate healthcare, the person of Islamic faith who is unfairly stereotyped as being Anti-American, the undocumented worker who is doing his or her best to make a better way of life for their family, or the disenfranchised felon who still can't vote despite having paid their debt to society. We should be empathetic towards their plight and do what we can to improve their circumstances.
The former felons that gathered in Little Haiti on June 13 weren't there seeking a tax break or an economic bailout but simply access to the ballot box. How long is a person supposed to be denied their basic civil rights after they have already completed their sentence? Jackie Robinson's quote that "the right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time" is as applicable now as it was the day that he said it. It is time for America to live up to the words of the pledge of allegiance that is recited every day in Kindergarten classrooms and be a nation that embodies the notion of liberty and justice for all.