America has a long history of depriving entire groups of people the right to vote. Before the Civil Rights Act, black citizens were ridiculed, threatened with lynching, and even given a disposable paper ballot when they expressed interest in making their voices heard.
With a candidate such as Barack Obama running for president in this election, one would think we've come a long way. But some argue that the new target of government-sanctioned discrimination is the growing class of convicted felons who have served their time and paid their fees, but still can't vote.
The Sentencing Project reports that an estimated 5.3 million Americans--1.4 million of whom are black men--are denied the right to vote because of felony convictions. Of these, 2.1 million are ex-offenders who have fully completed their sentences and probations.
Nowhere is this problem more evident than in the state of Florida, which was the center of controversy during the 2000 election.
"We estimate close to a million people are disenfranchised in Florida. That's a lot of people, especially for one state," says La Rhonda Odom, a racial justice project associate with the ACLU of Florida. This amounts to nearly a third of the state's black men.
"The majority of individuals who lose their rights are minorities like me who can't afford proper representation to defend themselves in the judicial process and who aren't fully informed of the repercussions of pleading guilty," says Tiawan Daniels, an ex-offender living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Under the Florida constitution, convicted felons lose more than their voting rights, they're disqualified from obtaining almost 100 state occupational licenses. This severely hinders those who've paid their debt to society from securing productive employment and reintegrating back into the mainstream.
"I consider myself a model citizen," says Daniels. "I volunteer at the ACLU and work with the youth and homeless in my community. I've always wanted to have a meaningful career and be able to have a say in the political process, but regardless of how much I give back, it feels like I'm not a complete citizen."
Daniels was found guilty of a drug-related felony 10 years ago, when he was 16 years old, and is still suffering the consequences, despite having served his time and paid his fees. His predicament is a common one, according to Michelle Jawando, the National Election Protection Campaign Manager for the People for the American Way Foundation.
"Many of these ex-offenders are grown men who made mistakes as teenagers while joyriding in cars late at night. Some are now 67 years old and have never voted," says Jawando.
Democratic and Republican leaders do not aggressively pursue the reenfranchisement of ex-offenders for fear of appearing soft on crime. But shortly after taking office in 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) pushed new legislation that permitted many nonviolent felons in Florida to vote, as long as they have no charges pending, have paid restitution, and have completed their probation.
This was a success for many of those involved in the ongoing fight for ex-offender reenfranchisement in Florida, but the toughest task was still ahead. Making sure these people were not only aware of the new law, but also their clemency status, would take a concerted effort. The People for the American Way Foundation established a toll-free hotline and the "Restore My Vote" website, which utilizes an easily searchable database to check for voter reenfranchisement. The website alone has received over 50,000 hits.
Daniels distinctly remembers the day he learned his rights had been restored.
"That's like asking me what my birthday is," he says. It was October 16, 2008.
As federal and state prison populations continue to swell, the issue of voting rights for convicted felons has gained increasing attention. While some states are now restoring the voting rights of ex-offenders after they complete their prison terms and probation periods, the restoration process is usually so bureaucratic and burdensome, few have the patience and time to follow through with it.
"I fought tooth and nail--calling every single day, writing and sending e-mails to the clemency office. The process is more deterrent than it is welcoming," says Daniels.
The fourteenth amendment to the constitution states that the voting rights of individuals found guilty of "participation in rebellion, or other crime," can be denied. Under current law, the federal government may not infringe on a state's authority to grant or rescind voting rights to prison inmates and former felons.
Opponents argue that once a person violates the social contract and commits a crime, he or she no longer deserves the rights bestowed upon law-abiding citizens. They also also claim that prohibiting former felons from voting ensures the integrity of the process, especially in states and jurisdictions where the populace directly elects judges, law enforcement officers, and district attorneys.
Others argue that the reenfranchisement of ex-offenders is a partisan effort undertaken by the Dems, although both of the high-profile organizations involved in the effort--the ACLU and People for the American Way Foundation--are non-partisan.
"Reenfranchised voters can vote for whomever they choose," argues Odom. "The real issue is democracy. We're just making sure everyone is franchised and participating in democracy, no matter who they are, come election day."
John Smith, a forty-something ex-offender living in Texas who wishes to remain anonymous for job-related reasons, doesn't know if his voting rights have been restored. He says his probation officer told him five years ago that he couldn't vote anymore. He assumed that meant for the rest of his life.
"I've learned that once you become a convict, the system is designed to keep you a convict forever," he says. "You make a mistake, get caught, and get it on your record--you're screwed for life. No one will hire you, regardless of your education, so why would anyone allow you to vote?"
He also argues that if the criminal justice system were truly rehabilitative, then no one should take issue with law-abiding, tax-paying ex-offenders, such as himself, filling out a ballot.
"As a country, we haven't figured out who we want to be," claims Jawando. "Are we into rehabilitation or punitive damages?" A crucial part of the rehabilitation process, she says, is making ex-offenders feel a part of the community.
Giving these men and women a say in the direction of our country is a meaningful way of inviting them back into society, which is why reenfranchisement is more than a political move, it's a judicial move--with very local consequences.