Every four years, America turns its attention to the battleground state of Florida.
As the 2016 presidential election cycle draws to its conclusion the state remains on a knife edge, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tied among likely voters in recent polls. Without Florida, Trump’s path to 270 electoral college votes all but disappears.
That’s one reason why the numbers produced in a recent report headed by University of Minnesota Professor Christopher Uggen are particularly shocking. The report was prepared for The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group that lobbies for criminal justice reform in the US. It found that in 2016 an estimated 6.1 million American citizens will be barred from voting as the result of a felony conviction. More than 1.6 million of them live in Florida.
An estimated one in 40 adults in the United States is disenfranchised as the result of a current or previous conviction. For African-Americans of voting age, the rate is one in every 13. In Florida, as well as in states like Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, the rate of African-American disenfranchisement is more than one in five.
Felony disenfranchisement is the point at which the US’ mass incarceration crisis meets its rigidly partisan, racially divided political system. On one end of the spectrum, two states allow people actually held in jail to vote. At the other end, in states like Florida, minor crimes can result in a lifetime ban on voting.
One of those kept off the rolls in Florida is Desmond Meade. The 49-year-old, who now has a law degree, served time for firearm possession.
“Eventually I found myself homeless and on drugs, standing in front of a railway track contemplating suicide,” he recalled. “But the train didn’t come that day.” Having finally hit rock bottom, Meade checked into a drug treatment program.
Meade now works for an anti-gun violence group and serves as president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Despite his degree, he is not able to formally register as a lawyer in Florida. He is also not allowed to vote.
In Meade’s home state those with a felony conviction are taken off the rolls and not automatically returned. This in a place where it can be a felony to counterfeit or alter a lottery ticket, tamper with an odometer, or interfere with a railroad signal. On the same day I spoke with Meade he met a fellow Floridian caught driving with a suspended licence. That was enough to earn a felony conviction.
From here, the path back to enfranchisement is long. Thanks to a recent toughening of both law and approach under a Republican governor, the number of people having their rights restored each year in Florida dropped from more than 30,000 to just 420.
The potentially massive political impact of such disenfranchisement around the country is noted in a paper by a senior attorney with the Southern Coalition0 for Social Justice Allison Riggs, who specialises in voting rights.
“In Florida [in 2000], the presidential race was decided by a 537-vote margin, at a time when approximately 600,000 former offenders were prohibited from voting in the state,” Riggs noted. “Indeed, one study indicated that as many as seven US Senatorial elections would have had a different outcome absent felony disenfranchisement laws.”
That number is now far higher in Florida and around the country. In an interview with Crikey, Riggs pointed to high incarceration rates and tough drug laws. Even as some states ease their restrictions on voting, the tally climbs.
The argument in favour of Florida-style disenfranchisement laws is that people must earn their vote back. It’s supposed to be an incentive for good behaviour.
In reality, it amounts to an extension of the time-limited punishment a court hands down. Around the country, 77% of those disenfranchised for a felony have already been released from jail and are living on parole, probation, or as totally free citizens.
Attempting to navigate the byzantine restoration process convinced Meade to start advocating for reform.
“It seemed to me I had a much better chance of revising the policy as opposed to trying to apply,” he said.
Like others pushing for change, Meade emphasises the way broader inequities in America’s justice system, especially the over-policing of minority communities, exacerbates the levels of disenfranchisement.
So too does the nation’s punitive approach to criminal justice. Nicole Porter, a director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project, says “three strike” laws play an insidious role. Such laws mandate that anyone’s third conviction be recorded as a felony, instead of the lower category of misdemeanour.`
For Porter, this fits into a history of “disenfranchising African-Americans and using the criminal justice system as a way to carve out parts of the black electorate”.
That’s proved a hard sell in the nation’s higher courts, however.
Riggs was recently involved in a Virginian Supreme Court case, triggered after the state’s Democratic governor attempted to issue a mass pardon and was challenged by state Republicans. The challenge succeeded, sidelining questions of racialised voter suppression by pointing out that felony disenfranchisement laws had been on the books before African-Americans were granted the vote.
“Quite frankly, in the federal courts we need some new judges,” said Riggs.
Virginia’s governor was forced to stop the mass pardons and is now restoring rights in the same way a few people in North Carolina are suppressing them: one at a time.
For someone who has spent a decade unsuccessfully advocating for the restoration of his voting rights, Desmond Meade is surprisingly upbeat about the obstacles in the way of reform. While felon disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts minority communities, it still knocks off huge numbers of white voters as well.
“This goes beyond racial issues, it goes beyond partisan issues as well,” said Meade.
“I feel very positive. From people who are registered Republicans to independents to Democrats, the American people as a whole believe in second chances. This is a nation of second chances.”
“So when we’re talking about giving people who have paid their debt to society a second chance, that’s something that resonates.”
Despite the optimism, there’s little reason to think Republican leaders in states like Florida and Virginia will be sold on such arguments. With more than 6 million Americans excluded from the most direct form of democratic participation, there’s a lot more at stake than Florida’s 29 electoral college votes.