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  1. Opinion

Column: Restoring ex-felons' rights benefits everybody in Florida

Published Dec. 7, 2017

For most people, the debate over felony disenfranchisement is theoretical and involves issues of fairness and punishment.

But preventing people with criminal convictions from voting has real-life consequences, even if we can't see them now. Everyone — regardless of party affiliation or whether they've been involved with the justice system or not — has a stake in whether people with criminal convictions can vote.

To be clear, just because felony disenfranchisement isn't done geographically doesn't mean it's not a form of gerrymandering. Both disenfranchisement and gerrymandering allow legislators to pick who will be voting in their district.

A new study from Princeton professors found that manipulating voting populations is bad for everyone. Gerrymandering appears to favor Republicans, but that trend won't last forever. Princeton professor Sam Wang said, "There are demographic changes coming, and some of these states that are currently close are moving in the direction of Democrats. … As those states shift, the party that is hurt by gerrymandering will become the Republican Party."

The same is true for felony disenfranchisement. Studies have shown that it actually ends up suppressing votes from people who aren't justice-involved. To keep one felon from voting, these policies may end up suppressing other ballots, ones that might be cast for the GOP.

Florida is only one of three states that permanently prevent felons from voting. A new study — the first to count the number of people convicted of felonies in the country — found that at least 10 percent of Florida's adult population has a felony record. The fact that those residents of the Sunshine State are denied the right to vote has contributed to a myth that no one with a criminal record can vote in any state.

In fact, nationally, justice advocates are so preoccupied with fighting felon disenfranchisement that they've failed to educate returning citizens about their rights to civic participation. A study published in Probation Journal revealed that many returning citizens in states that restore voting rights don't understand that they can vote. In three states that refranchise people after a felony conviction — New York, North Carolina and New Mexico — only a little more than a third actually re-registered to vote. Of those who do, the most likely registration is independent, probably because they feel the Democratic Party failed them.

Anecdotally, I know that a good number of people with criminal records supported President Donald Trump in the last election and will likely vote Republican in the future. The fact that their support for a president may prove to be self-defeating doesn't negate the validity of their votes.

A good example is Michael Grimm, the former congressman who went to prison for tax evasion. He's running again, and in New York he's allowed to vote for himself, whereas in Florida he wouldn't be. Grimm has been endorsed by the president's former adviser Steve Bannon, and he supports Trump, who in the past has criticized restoring voting rights to convicted felons. Republicans who support voting bans may prevent their own base from casting ballots for them.

The benefits of voting rights restoration will outweigh many of the downsides that people perceive, regardless of how people vote. Allowing people with criminal records to vote reduces recidivism, according to Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which means that re-enfranchising felons improves public safety.

The thousands of Floridians who apply for clemency — the only way to have voting rights restored — cost taxpayers $10 million a year in funding for the Florida Commission on Offender Review. Restoring their votes would save much of that money. Floridians for a Fair Democracy has already collected more than 100,000 signatures from Florida residents supporting their effort to amend the state Constitution to allow people with felony records to have their rights automatically restored.

A lifetime ban on anything eclipses the chance of redemption. Imagine if the effects of your worst mistake followed you for the rest of your life. That's what gerrymandering and felon disenfranchisement do to people with felony convictions.

It's also what will happen to Republican politicians in the future: They will regret the mistake of persisting with these shortsighted, wrongheaded policies that will eventually strip them of advantage. Republicans, you won't continue winning unless everyone votes.

Chandra Bozelko served more than six years in the maximum-security York (Conn.) Correctional Institution, and she blogs about her experiences at Prison-Diaries.com. She is a 2017 Journalism and Women Symposium Emerging Journalist Fellow, 2017 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Criminal Justice Reporting Fellow and a 2018 Leading with Conviction fellow with JustLeadership USA and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Guardian and National Review.

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