Andrea Unzaga-Burgos/ Contributing Writer
While discussing my research with my father in anticipation for the election, I, much like Beyonce in Dreamgirls, found myself alone at a crossroads with regards to amendment 4.
From the moment I could grasp the true purpose of government and the existence of its shadow, incessant tribal conflict (politics), everything I thought was true about the American spirit of democracy was stolen from me.
My colonial revolutionary heroes became storybook characters as I quickly came to realize the evil that can be done at the hands of great power. Over the course of my teenage years, the threads of the American flag unraveled before my eyes and all I could do was bite my lip, tweet furiously and observe the downfall of my future.
Naive, powerless, and mute, the generation of 18-year-olds in 2018 have lived through arguably the most inconsistent political climate to date, with no outlet of expression for real change until now.
Having been left at the kids table during the 2016 presidential elections, our inability to voice our fears and concerns for the law has fanned the flames of desire for political change amongst youth in the U.S.
On Nov. 6, latter-day millennial silence in the state of Florida comes to an end.
The rocky terrain of our political landscape and round-the-clock use of social media has instilled a sense of urgency in our culture.
Plagued by a collective hypersensitivity and ignorance brought on by “fake news”— the yellow journalism of today — our generation is tormented by a hunger for social change and constant exposure to questionable information disguised as facts.
I cannot understand the perspective of first-time voters of any other era but my own and I will not pretend to, but it is the case that technology has never been as strong an influence to the public pursuit for truth as much as it is now.
There is a creative school of thought whose theory states structured and focused chaos is necessary for change to occur.
Our country has been split down the middle. So naturally, roaming around in the social shambles deviously created to boost national morale, we have become passionate about reform.
The tragedy, rage and absolute stupidity I’ve witnessed on my timeline every day for the past five years take up a lot of space on the list of reasons I’ve been counting the days to election day. My first election day.
Even if those reasons were not present in my day-to-day grind, my attachment to social media and the individuals in my virtual community who were affected by those reasons, made them part of my reality.
As an open-minded millennial with conservative beliefs, I welcome change with open arms but a close eye.
Enter amendment 4.
This amendment would restore voting rights for people who have been convicted of felonies, except for murderers and sex offenders, after they finish their sentences.
According to The Sentencing Project, 6.1 million individuals are disenfranchised in the U.S., and 3.1 million of them have already completed their sentences.
This means they’ve already gone to prison, completed parole and probation where applicable and have repaid their debts.
This not only delves into voting rights but also the overarching moral question about the role of the corrections system, which might I add, has been racially skewed since its conception.
Amendment 4 has divided the sunshine state in two: those who believe the function of legal punishment is to achieve consequence, like reform or deterrence, and those who believe we do it because criminals deserve retribution and consequences don’t matter.
Should our justice system aim to correct an individual’s behavior, allow them to atone for their mistakes and help them re-enter society as more productive individuals, or aim to remove them from society altogether?
Before I go off on a passionate rant, allow me to get the facts out of the way.
The Gelardin New Media Center claims that the average African-American male prisoner earns a median income of $18,000 in salary prior to incarceration.
For comparison, the average African-American male who’s not incarcerated earns a median income of $31,000.
This data is similar for other races and proves that people in poorer communities are more likely to be incarcerated, therefore, more prone to disenfranchisement.
This means the voices of low-income, urban crime-ridden communities that need the government the most go unheard during election time.
Poor conditions lead to high crime rates which hurt democracy. If poor African-Americans are unable to vote, then their elected officials are not accountable for their problems and can ignore them.
This creates an unforgiving cycle in which a community’s poor conditions lead to high crime rates, nourishing the weeds of high incarceration, resulting in high disenfranchisement rates, stripping the electoral voice of these communities, thus perpetuating their poor conditions.
After the civil war, there was an effort to disenfranchise African-Americans and poor whites in fear of them joining together and creating a populist movement. This lead to a massive electoral misrepresentation in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
At the turn of the century, this pandemic electoral suppression can be found in Louisiana, where only 15 percent of the eligible adult male population was voting because of the disenfranchisement. (Caught: The Prison State and the lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk)
For 100 years in the Jim Crow south, white southerners did everything they could to keep Black Southerners from voting. Barriers were created to impede African-Americans from creating change in their government such as poll taxes, literacy taxes and the maliciously intended exaggeration of petty crime into felonies.
The reassessment of this amendment means national progress. However, used as a strategy to shrink the electorate, felon disenfranchisement remains a vestige of the civil war years where whites were more likely to commit homicide and get away with it whereas African-Americans would be locked up for petty crimes and become misrepresented.
Florida alone accounts for a fourth of the entire national disenfranchisement population. 1.5 million Floridians have paid their dues and are still unable to participate in our democracy.
What obstacles do we face in outlawing felon disenfranchisement?
There’s too many to count but all mainly stem from partisan differences. Generally, Democrats support the expansion of voting rights and Republicans do not.
Approximately seven out of ten felons nationally are registered Democrat, according to the Washington Examiner.
And African Americans have overwhelmingly voted Democrat in every election since 1976, according to blackdemographics.com. Bear in mind, that is only 12 years after the civil rights act of 1964, which among other discriminating common behavior, outlawed unequal application of voter registration requirements.
During a 2016 Republican debate against Rick Santorum, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke for the conservative half of the country by saying he doesn’t believe people that have committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again.
Because I bleed both red and blue, I understand and can agree with Senator Romney’s statement wholeheartedly. When someone breaks the public trust by committing a violent crime, they forfeit their right to take part in the democratic process. However, only 18% of all felony convictions are for a violent crime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistical Tables of Felony Sentences in State Courts.
That means that of 6.5 million individuals that have served their time, 1.17 million souls remain trapped in silence, unable to represent their communities, still marginalized from society.
Senator Bernie Sanders stated in a presidential rally that one shouldn’t have to lose their right to participate in the democracy in addition to already having spent time in prison, but suggested that there is a political agenda on behalf of the right.
If there’s is a large sum of African-American men and women barred from the polls, felon disenfranchisement benefits Republicans. During the 2000 presidential elections, Bush beat Gore by only 537 votes and Florida’s electoral votes decided the election.
As a result of the narrow margin, much discussion arose about recounts and Hanging Chads but outlawing disenfranchisement could’ve easily rocked the vote.
Roger Clegg, co-author of the Texas Review of Laws and Politics states that only those who are trustworthy and loyal to the republic should be allowed to vote. I’d really love to agree with Clegg, but it’s hard enough for people to remain loyal to their spouses without having to create a communal social stigma and sense of moral obligation.
My internal battle lies with this: If the ayes have it, the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons will largely affect election outcomes and Florida will by default become a blue state indefinitely. 78 percent of felons vote democrat on average, according to crimeresearch.org.
This means that my conservative inclinations don’t stand a chance.
This is a pressing issue for me because I think the left wants to ruin my life, but this is not a matter of partisanship; this is a matter of civic right restoration.
When you vote, you experience what it truly means to be an American citizen. Our democracy is what our founding fathers fought for.
Among many other things like personal sovereignty and untaxed tea, it is the backbone of our great nation.
I am a firm believer in redemption.
George W. Bush himself stated that America is a nation of second chances.
Perhaps it is simply my character, but I cannot accept a political advantage at the expense of the civil liberty of someone else. In the cruel and unforgiving world of tabletop games, that is referred to as cheating.
When the prison doors are opened, I believe society should do all it can to help facilitate re-entry because it’s in society’s best interest. Voter restoration helps increase public safety, increases contributions to the tax base and paves way for equal representation and the spirit of fairness.
In a Fast Company article by contributor Adele Peters, we learn the story of Emily Turner; a Minneapolis Attorney that left her job at the department of US Housing and Urban Development to open a non-profit grilled cheese restaurant.
In order to score a job at “All Square” (the name is a play on the shape of the sandwich and the belief that after serving time, everyone deserves the chance at a clean slate), you need a criminal record. Employees, called fellows, work 30 hours a week at the restaurant and are paid for 10 hours of structured coursework; taken on Mondays after the restaurant closes, in law and entrepreneurship.
As reported by Peters, the nonprofit also works with fellows to make sure they have transportation to work, business attire, the support of mental health care workers and basic soft skills before they begin.
Turner does not see ex-felons as the criminals they once were.
The problem I see among amendment 4 naysayers is that they refuse to mentally remove the handcuffs and orange jumpsuit from these individuals, rather than seeing them as members of our communities with potential for growth.
Studies have shown a strong correlation between social exclusion and recidivism. Returning voting rights to ex-cons who have done their time and proved themselves worthy citizens instills within them a sense of civic responsibility and community through participation.
Gov. Rick Scott and other Florida officials who support the clemency process argue that it’s important for offenders to prove they are ready to re-enter society before regaining the right to vote.
Though there is no evidence to suggest that someone who has committed a crime can’t be trusted to decide which candidate has a better immigration policy, I do agree with Gov. Rick Scott.
The problem here is that Scott seems to be dealing with a serious case of cognitive dissonance.
Scott’s current protocol for civil right restoration is absolute garbage!
He and his clemency board have created barrier upon barrier to make political representation for felons impossible to attain.
Not only are you required to wait five to seven years to apply, according to the Brennan Center of Justice, it’s also not uncommon for citizens to wait ten additional years for a chance to appear in court to prove they’ve turned their lives around.
Mind you, the board only meets four times a year, making the odds of felons seeking a second chance that much slimmer.
They’re given ten minutes make their case to Gov. Scott and the board of clemency, who can deny their request with absolutely no explanation.
Felon disenfranchisement hampers our democracy, strips citizens of their voices, discriminates against African-Americans and perpetuates the problems Florida’s impoverished communities face.
I have no family members in prison and I have never been in the can myself.
I have no horse in this race; I have no obvious biases that I am aware of and I will be at the library of North Miami on Nov. 6 eager to cast my vote.
There are many reasons to feel small in this world.
Using my voice to grant liberty to others is one of my reasons to be. I do not know what it is like to view the world from the eyes of a felon. The facts I pull out of the world are not their facts. But like them, I know what it is to be bombarded with social issues in my community that I cannot solve.
I know what it’s like for the government to rob half of my wage slave paycheck to finance our Senator’s new summer home, while teachers go underpaid and school children share math textbooks because there aren’t enough for everyone.
I will not compare my human experience to that of someone who has known the walls of a prison cell, but I cast my vote on behalf of all citizens silenced by the law but still raging with American grit and a passion for change.
I vote for me and for everyone who cannot use their voice to change the laws and policies that limit them.
Stop letting politicians select their voters and help make America the Democracy it should be.
The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community.
Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash.