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Voters Consider Criminal Justice-Related Issues in Midterm Elections

by Steve Horn

The November 6, 2018 midterm elections saw a slew of criminal justice-related issues on the ballot in jurisdictions across the country. 

In states ranging from Florida, Ohio and Colorado to Louisiana and Michigan, various criminal justice-oriented measures went up for a vote. The most prominent of those was an effort in Florida to expand voting rights for former prisoners.

That particular ballot initiative, Amendment 4, will expand the right to vote to an estimated 1.4 million Florida residents who have felony convictions. There is a caveat, though, which led PLN’s parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), to oppose the measure: It does not apply to former prisoners convicted of murder or felony sex offenses. And since the initiative amended the state constitution, it is unlikely those excluded ex-offenders will ever be afforded equal voting rights.

“No one involved in the campaign for Amendment 4 has said anything along the lines of ‘this is just the first step.’ They’ve all been pretty clear that this is it and that they’re done if the amendment passes,” HRDC executive director and PLN editor Paul Wright told The Crime Report last year. “No one is going to spend $16 million to re-enfranchise 80,000 murderers and sex offenders,” he added, referring to the amount of money raised to put Amendment 4 on the ballot and get it passed. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.32; Sept. 2018, p.14].

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, offer full voting rights to all of their residents, including those who are incarcerated. Voting restrictions for people with criminal records are typically justified by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allows for the denial of voting rights due to “participation in rebellion, or other crime.”

Prior to the passage of Amendment 4 with 65 percent of the vote, Florida was one of just four states – the others being Iowa, Virginia and Kentucky – that permanently bar people with felony convictions from voting unless they had their rights individually restored. 

“[Amendment 4] will have an outsize effect on the African-American population, who are arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate than any other group,” explained the magazine Fortune. “More than one in five African-Americans in Florida can’t vote because of a felony conviction.”

Yet HRDC saw the ballot initiative as granting rights to some ex-prisoners at the expense of others; rather than the rallying cry of “all of us or none,” Amendment 4 was more “some of us.”

“While Amendment 4 is beneficial in that it restores voting rights to many convicted felons, we are troubled by the specific exclusion of murderers and sex offenders, and enshrining such discrimination against a class of former prisoners into the state constitution,” HRDC wrote. “For 28 years, HRDC has advocated on behalf of all people negatively impacted by the criminal justice system, including sex offenders and murderers. We have never pitted one impoverished, oppressed and vulnerable population against another and, more importantly, we have never advocated for nor sought to advance the rights of any person or constituency to the detriment or loss of rights of any other person or constituency. We want liberty and justice for all, not just for some based on their convictions or other arbitrary designations.”

Following the passage of Amendment 4, Florida lawmakers are now trying to dictate how the ballot initiative will be implemented – such as whether a sentence is considered complete if court-imposed fines have not yet been paid.

“I would argue that no, your sentence is not up until you pay all your fines,” said state Senator Jeff Brandes.

Another major criminal justice issue during the midterm elections was raised in Louisiana, which voted to end non-unanimous jury decisions in felony cases in the form of a “yes” vote on Amendment 2. The state had previously allowed for convictions on a decision by 10 of 12 jurors. Now, the only other state that still allows for non-unanimous jury decisions in felony cases is Oregon.

Colorado, too, voted on a major criminal justice reform measure via Amendment A, with 65 percent of voters approving the ballot initiative. Amendment A revised language in the state constitution that abolished slavery or involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The initiative, which removed the exception clause, was pushed by Abolish Slavery Colorado. [See article on p.59].

In Michigan, in a measure that is likely to greatly reduce the state’s prison and jail populations, 56 percent of voters approved Proposal 18-1, which legalized the use of recreational marijuana. Neighboring Ohio voted on a similar measure called Issue 1, which would have reduced the penalties for certain drug-related crimes and converted possession charges for those drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. However, the proposal failed to pass. According to a February 2018 article published by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a similar law in Oklahoma, passed by voters in 2016, helped to reduce the prison population in that state. 

North Dakota, unlike Michigan, voted down a referendum – Measure 3 – which would have legalized recreational marijuana and expunged the criminal records of people with certain prior drug-related convictions. Some 59 percent of voters in the state voted “no” on Measure 3, while voters in Utah and Missouri approved ballot initiatives to legalize medical marijuana. 



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