Bring Prisoners Over to the 'R' Side

By Chandra Bozelko

May 10, 2019 5 min read

Just last week, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature voted to impose restrictions on 1.4 million voters who were re-enfranchised through a ballot measure last November. If they haven't paid their court fees, tens of thousands of new voters won't get to the polls, despite the passage of an amendment restoring their rights.

The Florida Republicans are not alone. From Ronna McDaniel to Vice President Mike Pence, opposing rights restoration — if not complete antipathy for voters inside the criminal justice system — has become an unofficial Republican position.

It's a bad campaign strategy for the GOP because "franchise for all" can be a boon for Republican candidates, including Donald Trump.

It's common knowledge that the passage of the First Step Act pushed criminal justice and prison reform — and liberation — into Republican territory.

"The conservative movement in this country ... is now the leader on this issue of (criminal justice) reform," REFORM Alliance CEO Van Jones told audiences at CPAC. Republicans' effect on people in the system is measurable and significant. At least 721 people have received sentence reductions and 573 inmates have already gone home in the four months since the law was enacted. Many more will have been discharged from custody to their families by November 2020.

No one can accurately predict who these released citizens will vote for — or even if they will return to states where they have that right. But I doubt they'll discount a second term for the administration that delivered their freedom or whose Department of Labor is spending $82.5 million to assure they get jobs upon release.

Even without the First Step Act, people with criminal records in and out of prison have supported Trump and other Republican candidates in the past. When a nascent prisoners' voting rights PAC was born in a Massachusetts prison, its leader planned to vote for George W. Bush. Thousands of inmates in Puerto Rico cast ballots in the 2016 presidential primary. Some Maine prisoners planned to vote for Trump in 2016.

Polling prior to the special election to fill the seat vacated by Senator Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general in 2017 showed ex-offenders supporting Republican candidate Roy Moore. A New York state parole officer called a local radio show and explained that most of the people he supervised supported Trump in the last presidential election.

Any candidate for elected office needs quantity of voters, not quality. And this population has big, untapped numbers. Seventeen million people with criminal histories are eligible to vote now that they've been released but many don't know that they can. The patchwork of voting rights across the country has convinced many potential voters that their rights are gone when they're not.

Of course, Democrats can pick up these supporters as well, but that's not new. Competing for support is the challenge at every election, regardless of party or who has the right to vote.

Historically, re-enfranchised voters don't have a particular ideological or political lean. They can be brought over to the R side. And 2020 will be the first time that the Republicans have the advantage with this population because of the recent prison reform successes.

Democrats want Republicans to remain deluded that prisoners and ex-offenders are a Democratic lock so they don't court this group. As long as Republicans fall for this, Democrats get away with being labeled prisoner-friendly when, as a whole, they're not. None of the 20 Democratic presidential campaigns have hired an ex-offender to staff their campaigns and only one supports re-enfranchising prisoners, the senator from Vermont, the state where no one ever loses their franchise.

Dangling notorious prisoners such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and people convicted of terrorism into the debate has distracted what should be a practical plan to maximize political support. The moral force behind a vote doesn't register anywhere in election results. If voting rights were restored to everyone, a candidate wouldn't campaign to a correctional population through appeals to crime, only to humanity and their existence as thinking citizens.

Restoring voting rights to everyone can be very beneficial for Republicans. The GOP needs to reconsider its position on felony re-enfranchisement.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: babawawa at Pixabay

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