In addition to its closely fought elections for governor and U.S. Senate, Florida voters will decide on a number of important amendments on November 6. Amendment 4, which automatically restores the voting rights of most felons after they complete their sentences, would have a major impact on state and local races if it becomes law.
As we learned with the memorable “hanging chad” election of 2000, Florida is a “purple” state with a very closely matched electorate. George W. Bush won the Sunshine State in 2000 by only 537 votes. Obama won with slim leads in 2008 and 2012. Trump won in 2016, but only by approximately 120,000 votes, a mere 1.3 percent lead over Clinton. In short, if there is a Republican majority in Florida, it is razor close. If Amendment 4 passes, up to 1.4 million ex-felons may be able to vote. This would significantly and permanently alter the political trajectory of Florida.
Currently, felons lose their right to vote in Florida unless they have their civil rights restored. This process includes a petition to a state clemency board, and ex-felons are not eligible to apply until they have avoided new criminal charges for a period of time, usually about five years.
Case-by-case adjudication makes sense. According to the National Institute of Justice, 76 percent of felons find themselves back behind bars within that five year period. This significant rate of recidivism suggests that felons are mostly incarcerated because they are committed criminals.
Because of a lingering libertarianism, feel-good ideas of reform, or simple ignorance, lots of otherwise Republican voters appear to be supporting this initiative. One poll had support as high as 71 percent. The media have consistently supported this initiative. Needless to say, soft-on-crime Democrat gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum supports Amendment 4. The matter is still likely to be close, however, because in Florida a 60 percent supermajority must approve a constitutional amendment for it to become law.
A Cynical Ploy
The usual narrative in favor of Amendment 4 is that restoring the right to vote is part of rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-offenders with society. But the real reason this initiative is widely favored on the Left should be obvious: ex-felons tend to overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.
There are likely many reasons for this—demographics, poverty, and the Democrats’ soft on crime tendencies—but, whatever the reason, tilting the scales in favor of Democrats and the Left would be a persistent effect of automatically allowing ex-felons to vote.
As a nod to rehabilitation, the initiative is beyond cynical. After all, there are many negative consequences of a felony record. Certain professional licenses are off limits, it becomes harder to find a job and a place to live, and it becomes a crime to possess a firearm. Each of these impediments can make life difficult, and each comes with the psychic cost of ongoing humiliation.
Some form of civil rights restoration and record expungement is likely good policy, so long as it is connected to a period of good behavior. As in other areas of life, we know that people can change, that young people make mistakes, and that incentives include both carrots and sticks. Hopeless people without a future are dangerous to themselves and the broader society, so reformed ex-convicts should generally be given a chance to live a normal life.
But with three out of four felons back behind bars within five years, the restoration of civil rights should be tied to a demonstration of true reform of one’s character.
Amendment 4 does exclude two particularly bad classes of felons: killers and sex-offenders. But if the principle is “once you’ve done your time, you should not be held back,” why shouldn’t the right to vote also apply to them?
While there are undoubtedly degrees of bad behavior, felons include bank robbers, wife beaters, arsonists, animal torturers, and thieves. None of these acts suggest the good character and sound judgment of a good citizen and informed voter. But under Amendment 4, the day such felons complete their sentences, they can vote. If they’re in and out of prison, their voting rights serially would be taken away and restored under this initiative.
Elected Officials Reflect the Character of the Electorate
Sometimes observers wonder, “Why is our political life so degraded?” Once upon a time we had men of the caliber of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as our presidents. They authored the Declaration of Independence, drafted the Constitution, conquered the West, and forged our country and its character.
Our early leaders wrote erudite books about politics, religion, art, history, and other matters of concern. They distinguished themselves on the battlefield and in legislative halls. Two centuries later, we endure the antics of a self-proclaimed Spartacus and the preening of wimps like Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse.
The quality and character of a nation’s elected officials are mostly a function of the quality and character of the electorate. When voter rolls include too many marginal, rootless, poor, and uneducated people, politics becomes a spectacle of competing sophistries and giveaways.
The degradation of democratic regimes is a familiar story. The latter days of Rome gave us the concept of “Bread and Circuses.” Hesiod sang of his time as the “age of iron.” Immigration-swamped New York gave birth to Tammany Hall.
Along these lines, many self-described conservatives have expressed their unease with the vulgarity and showmanship of Donald Trump. But if he is flawed in his style, it is a reflection of the character of the electorate. He is, after all, a reality TV star. He is not merely the president of the people but in a real sense “of the people.”
Even so, as much as I love the guy, he’s not George Washington.
Amendment 4 fundamentally intersects with the question of citizenship. Who is truly a member of the nation, entitled to decide upon its leaders and laws? For all of the ongoing reverence for the Founders’ notion of individual rights, they had an equally robust conception of citizenship as a demanding activity, the ideal of classical republicanism. There is a reason all those buildings in Washington, D.C. look like Roman temples. Part of this classical republicanism includes the straightforward notion that serious lawbreaking—committing felonies—forfeits the rights of citizenship, which were not absolute, but rather required observance of the duties of citizenship, the least burdensome of which is obeying the law.
Under the English common law, upon a felony conviction, one’s entire estate and wealth were forfeited and capital punishment was the norm. Things have softened, and there is a certain amount of justice in that softening. But all people do not have a right to all things. Convicted felons should, at the very least, show that they’re willing and able to follow the laws if they would have a say in who enacts them.
Florida’s Amendment 4 should be considered a test of whether today’s Republicans recognize the most elementary requirements of classical republicanism.