Voting rights amendment for ex-prisoners wins big majority

By Seth Galinsky
December 3, 2018

The passage of Amendment 4 in Florida restoring voting rights to most people convicted of felonies there is an important victory for working people and gives an impetus to similar fights across the country.

The owners of the New York Times  and other liberals and middle-class radicals claim that workers who elected Republican Ron DeSantis governor in Florida put a “fascist” like President Donald Trump in office. But the 64 percent vote, overwhelming working-class, in favor of the voting rights amendment shows that hysteria about a wave of reaction in the U.S. working class is false to the core. Working people oppose attacks on democratic rights. 

Two states, Iowa and Kentucky, still have laws like the one just overturned in Florida that permanently bar all felons from voting. Eight others permanently bar some felons. Fourteen states restore voting rights upon release from prison. Most of the rest restore those rights after completion of parole or probation. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow everyone to vote, including workers behind bars. 

Supporters of the amendment to the Florida Constitution collected more than a million signatures to get it on the ballot. They organized demonstrations, concerts, action days and toured a bus around the state painted in big letters: “Let My People Vote.”  

Blacks — imprisoned disproportionately in the U.S. — are thus disproportionately denied voting rights. Though just 17 percent of state residents, Blacks comprise some 46 percent of those in Florida prisons. Before passage of the law, one in five Blacks there couldn’t vote because of past felony convictions, compared to one in 13 in the rest of the country. 

“Any crime over $300 is a felony,” Karen Leicht, 61, who served over two years in federal prison for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, told the Times. “Three times with a suspended license and you’re a felon.” 

Under the new law, workers convicted of felonies will be able to vote once they finish their parole or probation. Those found guilty of murder or sex crimes are excluded. Even with these restrictions more than 1 million people will have their voting rights restored starting in January. 

Kentucky, Iowa, New Jersey next?

The Florida victory has already sparked a discussion in Kentucky, where more than 312,000 people — including more than 68,000 Blacks — are disenfranchised because of felony convictions. 

Unlike Florida, amendments to the Kentucky Constitution have to be proposed by the state legislature, and then, like in Florida, win at least 60 percent of the vote in a referendum. An attempt to get the measure on the ballot failed in 2016. There is growing coverage in the press of efforts to push for a new vote. 

A legislative advisory board in Iowa recommended Nov. 14 restoring voting rights there as well. Some 52,000 Iowa residents are denied voting rights because of past convictions. The 22-member board approved the proposal without a single vote against. 

A Nov. 12 editorial in the Newark Star-Ledger  was headlined “NJ Must Boost Voting Rights for Felons. Florida Just Did.” 

“There are 73,000 felons in our state on probation and parole. Why would we deny voting rights to 15,000 parolees who have already paid their debt with a prison sentence?” the editors asked. “And why would anyone deny the vote to 58,000 people on probation when they have never even been in jail?” 

The Star-Ledger  adds that disenfranchisement “has racist origins: The Black Codes employed by the South after the Civil War deprived the freedman from voting, so ‘crimes’ such as loitering were enforced to subjugate former slaves. These methods persist, as drug laws have banished millions of men of color from the mainstream and created the prison industrial complex.” 

Disenfranchisement goes back to the founding of the United States and was directed at the growing working class. Under the Constitution, voting rights were decided state by state. In the early years only landowners could vote. It wasn’t until 1856 that the last state, North Carolina, removed property ownership as a requirement. 

The bloody battles to defend and use the franchise by Blacks coming out of the victory of the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction led to the 15th Amendment. This says that the right to vote shall not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude.” Women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920. Eighteen-year-olds only gained the franchise in 1971 during the Vietnam War, saying if they were old enough to fight, they were old enough to vote. 

In Louisiana, in another victory for working people, Amendment 2 passed by over 60 percent of the vote. It requires that juries must vote unanimously to convict and imprison anyone. A 10-2 vote was previously enough. 

A similar anti-working-class law remains on the books in Oregon. 

Discriminatory sentencing changes pushed

President Donald Trump announced Nov. 14 that he was backing the bipartisan “First Step Act.” This would lower some federal prison sentences, including “three-strike” provisions that require a mandatory minimum life sentence for third-time drug offenders. The mandatory minimum would be set at 25 years. 

The bill also makes sentences for crack cocaine shorter retroactively. The disparity in mandatory sentences for crack cocaine, used mostly in Black and other working-class communities, and those for use of powder cocaine, was reduced in 2010, but wasn’t made retroactive. 

Millions of people across the U.S. are still denied the right to vote. Pushing these restrictions back “are an important part of advancing the unity and fighting capacity of the working class,” Steve Warshell, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Senate from Florida, said in an Oct. 29 statement calling for passage of Amendment 4. 

Class conscious workers everywhere should take advantage of the victory and keep fighting until all restrictions on voting rights — and the imposition of mandatory sentences — are brought down.