Florida's ex-cons get back the right to vote

  • 29 November 2018
  • NormanL

One largely overlooked issue decided in Florida on election day was a successful ballot initiative that will restore voting rights to potentially hundreds of thousands of residents. Who are these folks? They are former non-violent felons who have served their time and paid their debts to society. Now, they will be able to vote again. And it could fundamentally change how Florida -- and national -- politics work:

The Sentencing Project estimates that about 1.5 million Floridians have criminal records, although the changes will not benefit people convicted of murder and felony sex offenses. Even if just a small fraction of those ex-felons actually vote, it could be enough to swing elections. Republican Rick Scott won his race for the U.S. Senate by a little more than 10,000 votes, for instance, and Republican Ron DeSantis topped his opponent by just 32,463 votes in the governor’s race.

That's where Stephen Nodine comes in. The former Alabama politician-turned-felon, who moved back to his native Florida after finishing his sentence, recently founded an organization dedicated to organizing the felon vote.

Nodine envisions an influential voting bloc that candidates would have to reckon with and that could leverage its influence to win support for laws to ease the transition from prison to respectable society. Even if only 300,000 of those who are eligible registered to vote, he said, it could determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

“That’s a helluva voting bloc,” he said.

Indeed it is. And one would think both political parties would be working very hard to win these restored voters to their sides. But Republicans have bene reluctant to do so:

Nodine, a lifelong Republican, said he also hopes to change the attitudes of people in his party. The GOP historically has been lukewarm to reforms designed to increase voting rights of people convicted of crimes.

When explaining Republican opposition to a 2003 bill that would have made it easier for ex-felons to restore their voting right in Alabama, Marty Connors — who then was the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party — was blunt.

“As frank as I can be, we’re opposed to it because felons don’t vote Republican,” he said at the time.

(Ironically, Connors could be in a position to personally benefit from a reform to automatically restore voting rights; he faces federal bribery charges.)

But Connors had a basis for his gut feeling on the issue. There is evidence that felons who win the right to vote tilt Democrat.

Former felons also vote in smaller numbers than other groups. But ignoring them entirely could be a long term mistake:

Nodine said both parties may be wrong in their assumptions about the felon vote.

“It’s really ironic Democrats assume they’ve got these voters in their back pocket,” he said.

Nodine said that many prisoners find religion while incarcerated. Many have conservative values, he added. He said there is no reason why Republicans could not appeal to them.

“Republicans need to re-educate themselves on who’s really in prison,” he said.

Indeed they do, if they intend to remain competitive in the swing state of Florida.