Building the ‘Country that has Yet to Exist,’ 1.4 Million Returning Citizens at a Time

By Jen Lai-Peterson 

One week ago, we here at Advancement Project’s national office, took pause and gathered to grieve and reflect collectively on the horrific events of last week in Pittsburgh and Louisville, KY. During the reflection, Judith Browne Dianis, our Executive Director, shared these words, spoken once by civil rights leader, Vincent Harding:

“I am a citizen of a country that has yet to exist.”

Those words resonated with us.

We are closer than we think.

There is a revitalized American democracy – a multiracial democracy that guarantees a set of fundamental human rights to all – ready to be brought into existence. And those directly impacted by the criminal legal system and mass incarceration – including both formerly and currently incarcerated people – are leading the way.

An estimated 1.4 million people have restored their right to vote through hard-fought reforms won from 1997 to the present, including a projected 43,000 people on probation or parole in Louisiana who will become eligible to vote on March 1, 2019 under Act 636. Championed and won by Voice of the Experienced (“VOTE”) and its allies last May, Act 636 is a tremendous grassroots victory. We need to continue to support organizing and reform efforts spearheaded and directed by organizations of formerly incarcerated people.

Additionally, advocates estimate that 17 million people with past criminal convictions nationwide are eligible to vote right this very moment. We need to clear the path to voter registration and the ballot box for those with past convictions.

And then, there is Florida.

Tomorrow, voters in Florida will have the opportunity to restore the right to vote to another estimated 1.4 million “returning citizens.” Florida is presently one of four states where a felony conviction results in lifetime loss of civil rights, including the right to vote, as we explained a recent report, Democracy Disappeared: How Florida Silences the Black Vote through Felony Disenfranchisement. The impact of felon disenfranchisement on the Black vote in Florida has been particularly acute. As explored in detail in our report, “[a] disproportionate 43 to 44 percent of Florida’s Returning Citizen population is Black, while the Black population of the entire state is only about 17 percent.”

If Florida voters pass Amendment 4 – the Voting Restoration Amendment – they will have effectuated the single greatest expansion of voting rights since the 1960s. Amendment 4 would replace the current clemency process for restoring voting rights with what the Florida Supreme Court has described as “automatic voter restoration eligibility” for people with prior convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of all terms of sentence.

This action of Florida voters could reverberate across our democracy.

Above all else, we need to continue to lift up and support organizations such as Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, founded by formerly incarcerated people in Florida, who organized us to this moment.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” –Arundhati Roy