In the middle of the hot summer, citizens will gather this week in Florida to champion a ballot initiative to end the state’s permanent felony disenfranchisement. As we face the daily jaw-dropping revelations about the Trump campaign and administration’s actions, keeping our focus on restoring legitimacy to our elections and our democracy has never been more important, and ending the historic wrong of felony disenfranchisement absolutely must be part of our agenda. It seems unlikely that the Trump-Pence “electoral integrity” commission will touch this important issue, and any commission that ignores it isn’t serious about the legitimacy of our elections. The right to vote is the most fundamental right of any democracy, granting it legitimacy as a means of government by instilling power in the people and not in politicians. It ensures “consent of the governed” and holds government accountable to the people: not law-abiding people, or moral people, or any other qualifier, but the people.
This most fundamental right is not and never has been about rewarding good citizens or even law-abiding citizens. It is not a luxury or a reward, handed out by the government as it sees fit. It is a right, and should not be conditioned on anything more than citizenship, and being of voting age.
And yet since the civil war, states have intentionally denied the right to vote to a certain category of citizens – those with a felony conviction. Today, felony disenfranchisement bars roughly 6.1 million citizens from the ballot box – one in 13 African Americans nationally.
This denial of a right so inherent to democracy – and to citizenship – is not based on respect for the law, but is rather a historic and deliberate effort to prevent black people from voting.