Defend the right of prisoners to vote!

Credit: ACLU Florida

With the midterm elections less than two weeks away, there have been at least 20 cases of people arrested and charged with voter fraud — really, voting while Black in the state of Florida. The allegations stem from the 2020 elections. All those arrested had been previously incarcerated for murder or sex offenses and are currently on parole. 

Florida’s governor is the notorious Ron DeSantis, an ultra right-wing bigot, who is openly racist, anti-trans, anti-communist and anti-worker. And Florida has the highest number of former “felons” per capita of any state. 

A state constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 2018, restored voting rights to many former prisoners, but others were left out, leaving many uncertain or misinformed about their eligibility to vote. The amendment excludes people convicted of murder or felony sex offenses and requires them to apply separately to have their voting rights reinstated. But how many former prisoners are even aware of these distinctions of who can and cannot vote once they are released? 

A roundup of some of those arrested in Florida was videotaped this past August by The Tampa Bay Times and then shared with the New York Times. An African American, Tony Patterson, asked cops on one of these videos why he was being arrested for two counts of felony for voting “illegally” in the 2020 elections, when he was told then that his right to vote had been reinstated. Patterson said, “What is wrong with this state, man? You all put me in jail for something I didn’t know nothing about. Why would you all let me vote, if I wasn’t able to vote?” (New York Times, Oct. 19)

Robert Lee Wood, who is Jamaican and one of the 20 arrested, had his voter fraud charges dismissed by a Miami-Dade County judge. When Wood was arrested during a 6 a.m. raid, his lawyer, Larry Davis, explained how his client was treated: “The house was surrounded with police that had automatic weapons. They wouldn’t even let him get dressed, and they took him to jail.” (New York Times, Oct. 21)

The dismissals of these charges may be a legal setback for DeSantis, but they won’t deter these racist attacks on the most oppressed. They are the norm, not the exception. Former prisoners, just like prisoners behind the walls, are criminalized, marginalized and demonized, especially if they are people of color. They not only find it almost impossible to find a decent job but also affordable housing, education, health care, respect and dignity. 

The arrests are meant to terrorize individuals and to terrorize any person of color who attempts to exercise their democratic right to vote — especially but not exclusively in the Deep South. This right was violently stolen after the overthrow of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and not restored until the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Right-wing maneuvers in the state legislatures and the courts have eroded various amendments in this historic law, which was won by the blood, sweat and tears of African Americans.

Denying any current prisoner or former prisoner the right to vote continues the historic disenfranchisement of African Americans.

While voting in a Democrat does not fundamentally mean better conditions for the masses, defending those who have been denied the right to vote can lead to class solidarity around many other struggles and issues. Class unity will ultimately help defeat the capitalist class and their reactionary mouthpieces like DeSantis — who work overtime to keep the multinational working class divided and confused on who their real class enemy is. 

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