by David M. Reutter
During the recent campaign to reinstate the voting rights of 1.4 million disenfranchised Florida felons, Republicans rallied against a constitutional amendment out of fear that former prisoners would vote as Democrats. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a top adviser, now claims they had it wrong
As reported in PLN, Florida voters decisively showed they believe ex-prisoners deserve a second chance when they approved Amendment 4, which reinstated the voting rights of all felons upon completing the terms of their sentences, except those convicted of murder and sex crimes. [See: PLN, Oct. 2019, p.58; Sept. 2018, p.14]. During the 2019 legislative session, however, Republicans moved to limit Amendment 4’s reinstatement of voting rights by requiring ex-felons to pay all court-ordered fines, fees and restitution before their sentences can be deemed complete.
At an April 2019 donor retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Kushner said former prisoners are more conservative than Republicans thought.
“One statistic that I found very pleasing is that in Florida they passed a law where former felons can now vote. We’ve had more ex-felons register as Republicans than Democrats,” he stated in an interview. Kushner joked at the donor event, “I guess climate change is not their number one issue.”
There are no official reports as to the political preference of felons who have registered to vote. An NBC report in February 2019 found that in Florida’s top 10 counties, Democrats gained 711 new voter registrations while Republicans gained 717. That data reflected all registrants and not just former prisoners who regained their voting rights under Amendment 4.
That ex-felons may be swinging to the Republican side was predicted by Paul Wright, executive director of PLN’s parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center.
“When the ACLU and its donors pushed Amendment 4, they focused on the racial justice narrative and how many black people were disenfranchised and left it unsaid that most black people vote democratic,” Wright explained. “But at the end of the day, more white felons were re-enfranchised than black felons,” and whites in Florida tend to vote Republican.
He added that “if Republicans could overcome their innate bigotry, they might be able to position themselves better.” Kushner said the Trump administration is trying to move Republicans in that direction, pointing to the First Step Act – which he helped to get passed.
According to The Sentencing Project, only about 418,224 of the 1,487,847 disenfranchised felons in Florida affected by Amendment 4 were black. While a majority of blacks in the state are registered as Democrats, non-blacks are basically evenly split among the two major parties and independents.
Other research, based on data from the 2016 elections in Florida, found that most former prisoners (58 percent) were registered as Democrats, while 24 percent registered as Republicans. Based on the limited available data, Politifact.com rated Kushner’s comments regarding the party affiliation of ex-felons in Florida as “mostly false.”
Kushner, a strong supporter of criminal justice reform, said “it would have changed my family.” He was referring to his father, who went to prison in the mid-2000s after pleading guilty to tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and witness tampering.
As for more felons registering as Republicans, Kushner stated: “That’s the data that I’ve seen. I think that will surprise a lot of people when they see the new coalition that President Trump is building for what the Republican Party has the potential to be.”
However, there is no practical way to determine whether former prisoners are registering to vote as Republicans or Democrats, as registration forms do not collect that information. And even if research backs up Kushner’s claims, it is still debatable as to what impact re-enfranchised felons, who typically have low voter turnout, will have on Florida’s political landscape.
Meanwhile, the American Conservative Union held its first Conservative Political Action Conference at a prison in early November 2019, at SCI Chester in Pennsylvania. Speakers included Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter, news commentator and author Van Jones, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, former White House official Mercedes Schlapp and Pennsylvania DOC secretary John Wetzel.
Sources: axioms.com, Newsweek, vox.com, politifact.com, sentencing.typepad.com, Washington Times
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