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The Right to Vote

Exploring the Role of Race and ‘Civic Virtue’ in the Continued Disenfranchisement of Florida’s Ex-Felons.

by Seth Shapiro
Shannell Thomas sitting on a bench in a garden

In November 2018, RepublIcans Rick DeSantis and Rick Scott were elected to become governor and junior senator of Florida, respectively, in two tightly contested races. On the same ballot, 65 percent of voters approved Florida Amendment 4, surpassing the 60 percent threshold needed to officially restore voting rights to ex-felons (except those convicted of murder or sexual assault) who had completed their sentences and paid full restitution for their crimes.

After the results were in, many – on both sides of the aisle – were left wondering whether the outcome of the two major races would have turned out differently had the individuals who had just been reenfranchised been allowed to vote in the very election that had given them back one of their civil rights.

If the 2020 election was supposed to provide something of an answer to that question, the results were not very revealing. Because, two years after having their voting rights restored, estimates indicate that more than 90 percent of Florida ex-felons were still disenfranchised.

Shannell Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and Criminology and this year’s Winslow Sargeant Doctoral Fellow, explains that the ambiguity of “sentence completion” is being used to justify why so many ex-felons are still being denied the right to vote; the question is being debated as to whether sentence completion includes paying restitution. The emphasis on ex-felons’ paying restitution belies an uncertainty, particularly among Republican lawmakers, about whether ex-felons are capable of contributing to the common good even after they have paid their debt to society.

“Communitarian ideology supposes that in order for an individual to make valuable contributions to the common good, they must be civically virtuous,” Thomas says. “But there are ways in which colorblind racism shows up to challenge the civic virtue of people of color.”

For instance, Black Lives Matter protesters were often labeled as “thugs” and “rioters” by certain politicians and individuals in the media, Thomas says. On the other hand, individuals who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were deemed to be engaging in “protest” and “dissent” by those same people.

“In our society, civic virtue is primarily available to one race of people: white people. This virtue remains intact even when they engage in the same – or worse – behaviors than people of other races,” Thomas says.

As a part of Thomas’ research, she has gone back to the year 2000 to explore the history and rhetoric of the ex-felon disenfranchisement debate in Florida. Most often, the subject of race did not enter into the debate; and if it was brought up at all, it was only by Republican lawmakers who denied their refusal to engage with the issue had anything to do with race. For years, legislation about ex-felon reenfranchisement was raised by Democratic lawmakers, many of whom were African-American or representing largely African-American populations, only to die in committee because they were never given the attention needed to bring the issue to the chamber floor.

“My research has found that, in the Florida legislature, an effective tool of colorblind racism has been ‘disregard.’ Color-blind racists have essentially told people of color that ‘to maintain our common good, we probably should not talk about the issues you are raising,’” Thomas says.

While the long-term outcome of this debate is unclear, Thomas explains that it has vast ramifications. “The entire trajectory of our country is changed when the voices of this population are silenced,” Thomas says.

This story appears in the Spring 2021 issue.
Article ID: 456

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