Our criminal justice system acts punitively long after the sentence ends. Most notably, harsh laws continue to punish those convicted of sex offenses throughout their lives. Banished, a recent piece from the Marshall Project, describes the literal ostracism of those convicted of sex offenses from society in Miami-Dade County in Florida. Extremely punitive sex offense laws on the federal, state, and local levels have created a system where those convicted of sex offenses cannot live in the vast majority of the county. Federal law restricts them from public housing. State law prohibits them from living within 1000 feet of a school, daycare, park, or playground. This has resulted in homelessness and has confined them to a small area of the county.
People convicted of sex offenses are not only marginalized into one area of the county and cut off from affordable housing. They also lack access to the ballot box, and a voting rights initiative on the ballot this year does not seek to change that.
Only three states in the country–Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa–categorically and permanently exclude all of those convicted of felonies from voting. Progressives across the country now advocate for Florida’s Amendment 4, which has been promoted as restoring voting rights to all of those convicted of felonies—with a throwaway line about the exclusion of those convicted of murder and felony sex offenses. While progressives forge ahead in advocating for Amendment 4, this notable and troubling exception has not received much, if any, attention. Advocates will argue that this amendment would benefit over a million potential voters in Florida, and that pragmatism is necessary. After all, in 2015, when eighteen states tried to expand voting rights, only one state—Wyoming—succeeded. Excluding those convicted of murder or sex offenses may make the amendment more politically palatable, but it discriminates against a significant portion of people, as well as perpetuates the very myths that it seeks to abolish. Notably, that certain groups of people convicted of crimes are not worthy of voting rights.
Campaigning for the restoration of voting rights has become a popular cause. A general push for restoration without a critical lens as to the conditions and exceptions has resulted in a “patchwork” of disenfranchisement laws, which leaves many states providing voting rights to those convicted of felonies with exceptions based on the crime committed. Not all criminal justice reformers support Amendment 4. The Human Rights Defense Center formally opposes the amendment for solidarity purposes. The organization’s founder was convicted of felony murder, which would exclude him from having his voting rights restored under Amendment 4. Wright stated to Vox, “We don’t think that you fight discrimination and bigotry by perpetuating it and embracing it. I’m one of the people targeted for exclusion, and so far no one can tell me why I shouldn’t be able to vote.”
Why shouldn’t Wright be able to vote? Is it simply the point about political palatability and making positive change even if it excludes a sub-group from benefiting? The arguments for extending voting rights to others convicted of felonies naturally lend well to sex offenses and murder. These arguments find their basis in the belief that a person’s mistakes and/or inability to access good counsel and society’s resources should not be stripped of basic fundamental rights, such as food, water, and shelter. And for voting rights advocates, this includes the right to vote. This argument applies no differently to those convicted of murder or a sex offense. Additionally, voting reduces recidivism, which is one of the major arguments for restoring voting rights. This same logic applies to those convicted of murder or a sex offense.
For the over one million Floridians deprived of the right to vote under the current system, Amendment 4 will bring much-needed change. The problem, however, lies in the groups and individuals that Amendment 4 leaves behind. The passage of Amendment 4 does not create an easier route to voting rights restoration for these individuals. Instead, it creates another barrier, as it would become even more politically unpalatable to pass a separate bill to restore the rights an even smaller and more demonized group in society. Staunch advocates of radical criminal justice reform may still support passage of Amendment 4, but what is missing from the conversation is a tough, critical analysis of its shortcomings.