The Lure of Partisanship (June 2018)

Felon Disenfranchisement and Partisan Traps 

In November, Floridians will head to polls to weigh in on the fate of a governorship, a Senate seat and two congressional posts. True to the state’s hard-earned reputation as a perennial electoral battleground, the statehouse and senatorial heats look like toss-ups, and one congressional contest is leaning Democrat while the other tilts Republican. The familiar refrain is enough — at least in the bluer enclaves — to trigger post-W stress disorder and all its attendant waking nightmares: Florida is too close to call.

But loitering further down the midterm ballot is a promise to upend this fragile detente. Florida Amendment 4, aka the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, proposes to restore suffrage to the estimated 1.5M reformed citizens who’ve paid their debt to society but are still barred from voting by Florida’s worst-in-show felon disenfranchisement rules. The plebiscite needs to secure 60% statewide support in order to trigger a constitutional amendment — and nobody’s counting any chickens quite yet — but since blacks are four times as likely as whites to be stymied by these rules, FA4’s mere presence teases a tantalizing leap forward for minority political influence in the Sunshine State.

Florida made moves to unravel some of this injustice back in 2008 when Democratic Governor Charlie Crist implemented automatic voting right restorations for people convicted of certain felonies and relaxed the rules on executive clemency for others. The results were dramatic: more than 115,000 Floridians regained the right to vote in the first year after the changes. But when the statehouse changed hands in 2011, Governor Rick Scott, in an apparent bid to validate liberal caricatures of GOP villainy, immediately rolled back Crist’s reforms, instituted a five-year waiting period before a clemency plea could even be entertained and demanded that every single ex-felon seeking a return of voting rights be personally judged by the Governor himself. It’s hardly a surprise that only a couple thousand applications have been approved since.

According to Ballotpedia, each of the candidates officially opposed to the amendment are Republican, and all of its supporters are Democrats. Fair enough; there’s not all that much that Democrats and Republicans will cop to agreeing upon these days, and the yawning chasm between Crist’s and Scott’s clemency policies probably made the divide unavoidable. But it also highlights the nagging subtext that casts ex-felon voting reform as a big-D Democratic issue that can be manipulated to strengthen The Party — and, by extension, wound the Republicans. The logic is unimpeachable: surely all those black men being kept from the ballot box aren’t fighting to get their rights back just so they can vote GOP, right? From there the wish fulfillment spiral inevitably spins back to November 2000 and sugar plum visions of softer clemency rules permitting 538 ex-felons to vote for Al Gore and deliver the White House to the Democrats. The conclusion is clear: the battle lines are the party lines.

And yet the lure of partisanship’s siren song is never quite what it appears to be. For one thing, it’s not obvious that ex-felon votes would have flipped the 2000 Electoral College; as it stands now, researchers can’t quite agree on what 2000’s ultimate outcome would’ve been, in part because, in addition to a disproportionate number of black males, Florida also disenfranchises a whole lot of poor, white, southern men who may well have been inclined to vote for W over Gore.

But the more troubling issue is that partisanship begets more partisanship. The government and politics professor Lilliana Mason points out that partisan divides are inevitably followed by a combination of heightened in-group bias, tendency towards activism and anger at perceived threats to the party. One way to consistently evoke that triumvirate is to bring party and ideology into alignment; as creed and dogma merge, voters react by becoming more uncompromisingly partisan. Maintaining that ex-felon voting rights are a cause that Democrats (as opposed to say, liberals, or just all humans) should support is a textbook example of conflating party with ideology — not to mention an obvious cue prompting Republicans to reflexively oppose the measure. It feeds the partisanship beast, in more ways than one.

That would be all well and good if the only goal were to get out the Democratic-leaning vote that might propel FA4 to victory. But it’s not — the quest for equitable voting rights is a marathon, not a sprint — and that’s problematic because, in the end, Republicans are a damn sight better at partisan games than Democrats. Today’s politics are stuck in a never-ending loop where Democrats stake out overwhelmingly popular positions on any number of social welfare issues, and then watch helplessly while the GOP laps them at the polls. The professor Yphtach Lelkes has shown that this odd equilibrium only persists because Republican voters are much more ideologically aware and oriented than their Democratic counterparts. Basically, deeply partisan battles are a source of strength for the Republicans, and — after being filtered through the two-party, zero-sum Thunderdome — a glaring weakness for Democrats. For them, starting a pitched partisan battle with the GOP is the political equivalent of getting involved in a land war in Asia.

The point is that even though chumming the partisan waters might be the expedient way to unlock the latent political power of Florida’s minority ex-felon population, it will also feed the hyperpolarized partisanship that stands among the key reasons that the political voice of minorities is suppressed in the first place. It’s precisely as a result of leveraging its base’s dogged partisanship that the GOP has managed to sustain all manner of initiatives — from regressive drug policies to anachronistic voter ID laws and shameless attacks on the Voter’s Rights Act — that are more or less specifically aimed at constraining black and brown legislative influence. Adding ex-felon voting to the list of explicitly partisan issues might win the battle, but it also risks handing the GOP yet another data point where party and ideology are one and the same — and inadvertently giving a shot in the arm to its ongoing war on minority political power. Be careful what you wish for.