I’ve been thinking a lot about the Republican Senate’s decision to close the impeachment trial without witnesses. There will be no evidence at what has now become a “trial” in name only.
Their decision reeks of fear. If the evidence had shown what Democrats said it would, the Republicans would have been hard-pressed to vote against removing Donald Trump from office. But they feared retaliation from their own party and their electoral base, and so they took the easy way out. With no trial, there will be no additional evidence of presidential wrongdoing. With no additional evidence, Republican Senators can vote to keep the President in office without being called self-serving hypocrites or worse. Without an actual trial, there is no official record and no official truth.
I’ve been stewing about the perversion of democratic values – values that I believe require us to pursue the truth regardless of where it may take us. It reminds me of another area involving voting where fear of the truth taints our democratic processes. I’m talking about felony disenfranchisement laws, which as of 2016 stripped the voting rights of over six million people with felony convictions.
Until recently, approximately one in five Black voters were disenfranchised in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia due to highly restrictive voter disenfranchisement laws. Change, however, was in the air.
In Florida, voters in 2018 passed a state constitutional amendment (“Amendment 4”) that would have automatically restored voting rights to over 1 million people with felony convictions after they completed the terms of their sentences, including parole or probation.
But after the voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, the Republican-led Florida State Congress passed a bill, signed into law by Republican Florida Governor Ron deSantis, requiring people to pay any outstanding court fines and fees before their voting rights could be restored. This created a significant voting barrier for people with felony convictions, who are often already poor upon entering prison and often entirely destitute upon release. Poverty among people with felony convictions is structural: employment is hard to come by with a felony record, skills are outdated, and wages are often low and inconsistent for those fortunate enough to find work. Many of the people who would have had their voting rights restored under Amendment 4 will find it impossible to pay thousands of dollars in back fines and fees, making them ineligible to vote in this year’s Presidential election.
In the meantime, in Kentucky, the newly-elected Democratic Governor Andy Beshear in 2019 signed an executive order restoring the voting rights of approximately 140,000 people with felony convictions who completed their sentences.
Republican law makers promptly stepped in, and proposed a bill that added additional identification requirements on top of existing state voter identification laws. Although this bill is not specific to people with felony convictions, it may well have the effect of keeping recently re-enfranchised people out of the voting booth. People often leave prison with no identification. Unlike in some other states, the State of Kentucky does not help people prepare, before their release from prison, obtain critical identification, such as social security cards or birth certificates, and people’s drivers licenses may well have expired. This means that people recently released from prison have to scramble to obtain “approved” identifications, no small task when they may not have transportation, access to a computer or a bank account, or extra money to pay the costs of securing those documents.
In Tennessee, the byzantine voter restoration rules have kept most people with felony convictions from voting. As of 2016, only 11,500 out of the 323,000 people who completed felony sentences have had their voting rights restored. Like the new Florida law, voting rights in Tennessee can only be restored after people have paid any outstanding fines and fees. Tennessee also requires that outstanding child support payments be satisfied before voting rights will be restored – the only state in the nation to do so. The process for voting restoration is so complex that two Republican state Senator attempted to streamline the process. The bill was until 2020.
I keep wondering why the states with the most regressive felony disenfranchisement laws are trying so hard to keep Americans from the polls. Do these leaders fear what would happen if every American citizen — regardless of their criminal record– had the right to vote and used it? If voter preferences – all voter preferences – were finally made known?
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” He meant that when we allow unvarnished truths to unfold in the public square for all to see, we foster a free and fair democracy. But when we prevent the public from seeing evidence in something like the impeachment trial, or prevent the public from experiencing accurate outcomes in elections because not all citizens have the right to vote, we turn America into a pale shade of her glorious democratic self.
These are turbulent times in which fear blinds us from the truth. I believe that an open and robust democracy, with a free electorate made up of all our citizens, is the best antidote to corruption and tyranny. Let’s restore voting rights to people with felony convictions and watch the truth emerge.