What Would Dr. King Do?

Florida leads the nation with more than 1 million citizens disenfranchised and unable to vote due to having been convicted of a felony. The path to having their voting rights restored is long and difficult, and has been found unconstitutional by a federal judge. This November, Floridians who are able to vote will determine whether convicted felons who have completed their sentences, including parole or probation, will automatically have their voting rights restored. But there are two glaring exceptions: people who have been convicted of murder or a sex offense.

The problem with Amendment 4 is that it perpetuates the discrimination and bigotry of disenfranchisement against a subclass of ex-felons—those convicted of murder or sex crimes. All the talk of Amendment 4 being about second chances, redemption and reintegration into the community rings hollow and opportunistic when it excludes certain former prisoners from the franchise. No other state constitution, according to The Sentencing Project, singles out citizens by conviction offense with respect to restoration of voting rights.

Around the nation, organizations led by former prisoners have made “All of us or none” a rallying cry against this very type of discrimination which seeks to divide and exclude. At its base level, Amendment 4 pits members of an impoverished and oppressed community against one another.

Nowhere in the history of the American franchise has extending the right to vote been conditioned upon depriving voting rights to another group of people. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for civil rights for black Americans, he did so for all black Americans, not just some and, more important, not at the expense of Latino Americans, Native Americans or Asian Americans. When suffragettes fought for voting rights for women, they did so for all women, not just some. Most recently, the struggle for marriage equality by the LGBTQ community did not seek marriage rights for only certain LGBTQ people; they sought it for everyone—and not at the expense of any other group.

In these examples, those who worked to expand the rights of their community did not take the low road of excluding certain people or achieving their goal at someone else’s expense for political expediency.

The proponents of Amendment 4 are spending more than $15 million to get the measure on the ballot. But the most important voting has already been done, by the people who decided to exclude murderers and sex offenders. With no sense of irony, the hundreds of corrupt Florida government officials who have been convicted for taking bribes and otherwise selling out their public offices will see their voting rights restored, as would anyone convicted of voter fraud or campaign finance violations. But sex offenders and murderers who have completed their sentences and are now rehabilitated, productive taxpaying citizens would not.

If Amendment 4 passes, it will enshrine into our state constitution discrimination against convicted murderers and sex offenders which will make enfranchising them virtually impossible. While some may point to the serious nature of their offenses, those crimes have nothing to do with voting; the punishment of disenfranchisement does not fit the crime.

I was convicted of murder in the state of Washington in 1987 for killing a drug dealer during an armed robbery. In 1990, while serving a 25-year sentence, I started a nonprofit magazine from my prison cell; today, 28 years later, it employs 18 people to advocate for just, humane and fair criminal justice policies. I pay taxes, work to improve my community and am a productive member of society. But the backers of Amendment 4 would deny me
the right to vote.

Do you think Dr. King would approve of Amendment 4? I don’t, because you can’t fight discrimination and bigotry by perpetuating it. I encourage Florida voters to vote against this ballot initiative.

For more information, go to humanrightsdefensecenter.org and prisonlegalnews.org.


Paul Wright is founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center.