When is a citizen not a citizen?

When is a citizen not a citizen?

In this election season, I have heard next to nothing about criminal justice reform.  Are other issues really so much more pressing?  Think about it.  2.3 million men and women in prison and another 5 million on probation or parole – amounting to 1 out of every 32 Americans under justice system control.  Countless others have completed their sentences but live with a record of a felony conviction.  They are returning to community at a rate of 1.5 million every two years.  Most do not return to prison.  Instead, they live in community, struggling for jobs and housing and reunification with their families.  They have paid their debt, but it is not over. 

Across our country, some of these countless former felons are disenfranchised from voting.  Others are not, but believe they are.  Others have just given up.   

And maybe that is why our politicians ignore the fact that so many of us are incarcerated. Many of their votes don’t count. 

In Florida in 2000, George Bush won over Gore by 537 votes, deciding the election. 

In Florida in 2000, approximately 827,000 former felons were disenfranchised and locked out of the voting booth, even though they had done their time.  In Florida in 2000, the governor in this battleground state instructed the secretary of state to purge hundreds of thousands of allegedly ineligible voters from the rolls – mostly Hispanic and African Americans.  12,000 of voters who were actually eligible to vote were removed because they were misidentified as former felons.

Convicted felons have unrestricted voting rights in two states.  In 13 states and the District of Columbia, the vote is restored after incarceration.  In 23 states, the vote is restored after incarceration and the completion of parole and/or probation.  In 12 states, former felons may lose the vote permanently.  (See the rules for your state.) 

Today, the Florida voting laws for formerly incarcerated people are so onerous that they are almost impossible to surmount.  New voting restrictions were passed by the Florida legislator last year, disenfranchising 100,000 former felons who had been granted the right to vote under GOP  Governor Crist in 2008.  Voting rights must be “restored” in a process that is severely underfunded and can take years of constant effort.  After the 2010 election, Florida’s new GOP Governor Scott instructed his secretary of state to compile a database of “non-citizen” voters; the secretary resigned rather than implement the governor’s plan, but his successor announced a list of 182,000 suspected non-citizen voters to be removed from the voting rolls, along with an additional 50,000 presumed dead, and another 7,000 who were removed as alleged felons who were erased in 2012.  As investigations proceed, at least 20% of the alleged “non-citizen” voters have been found to be, in fact, citizens.

Do we leave decisions on our civil rights up to parties who want to manipulate voter eligibility for political purposes? 

When is a citizen not a citizen? 

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