Martin Dyckman: Let’s celebrate July 4 by restoring felons’ voting rights

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Listen up, Tea Party. I’m going to talk about Rand Paul. Favorably. But first things first.

As we all remember from school, the independence we’ll celebrate this week was a revolt against taxation without representation.

Although the revolutionary agenda was actually more complex, taxation certainly was the spark.

But even today, 238 years later, there are millions of Americans who are still taxed without representation. The July 4 festivities will ring hollow for them.

More than 600,000 live in our nation’s capital. They can vote for president but not for Congress.

An equivalent situation would be unthinkable in London, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, or even Moscow. For shame, America.

Statehood is a political impossibility because it would mean two more Democratic senators.

There seems to be no reason, however, against Congress ceding most of the District of Columbia back to Maryland. It could reserve–for constitutional symbolism–a small portion comprising the Capitol and the White House. In 1846, Congress returned 31 square miles, nearly a third of the district, to Virginia. The Pentagon is there.

But if their situation is the most obvious, the district’s residents are a small minority compared to the nearly 6 million Americans who are barred from voting for any office–Congress, state, or local.

That’s the estimated number of people whose civil rights were forfeited under state laws or constitutions when they were convicted of felonies.

The larger numbers are in Florida and nine other states. In most of the rest, voting rights are restored automatically when a person is released from prison, probation or parole. In Maine and Vermont, even convicts may vote.

The worst offenders against America’s founding principle are Kentucky and Virginia, where disenfranchisement is for life, and Florida, where it might as well be.

Restoration in Florida requires individual approval by the governor and Cabinet. That means bureaucracy compounded by political malice.

When Charlie Crist was governor, he cut the red tape. Some 150,000 people got their voting rights restored during his four years in office.

But in nearly four years under his successor, Rick Scott, only some 1,200 applications have been processed.

Scott could hardly wait to make it more difficult. He and his accomplices on the Cabinet imposed waiting periods of from five to seven years.

As if by magic, this eliminated an estimated backlog of 400,000 applications and inactive older cases.

But those second-class citizens are still out there, their numbers growing by 50,000 a year.

Owing to bias in the criminal justice system, more than a third of these people are likely black. Black voters tend to favor Democrats.

That equation implies what Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi must have in mind when they stacked the deck. Even if it wasn’t their motive, it was something they could not responsibly ignore.

Now, as I promised, this brings us to Rand Paul.

The senator from Kentucky is sponsoring legislation to require the states to restore voting rights for Congress and president to people who had been convicted of non-violent felonies.

An earlier-filed bill by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and six other liberals would guarantee a federal franchise to all ex-felons.

But their announcement didn’t make as much of a splash as Paul’s did. His was more newsworthy because of who he is — an extremely conservative Republican who may run for president.

Although Paul doesn’t deny that he’s trying to make Republican politics more attractive to minorities, young people and others who care about civil liberties, he points out that it’s consistent with his interest in reducing penalties for drug offenses.

He believes in rehabilitation. He cites the case of a friend’s brother who grew marijuana plants in college and remains voteless 30 years later.

“If we’re the party of family values and keeping families together, and the party that believes in redemption and second chances,” Paul said on “Meet the Press” two weekends ago, “we should be for letting people have the right to vote back.

“And I think the face of the Republican Party needs to be not about suppressing the vote, but about enhancing the vote.”

Hear ye, hear ye, Governor Scott.

For voting purposes, a distinction between violent and non-violent felonies makes little sense except perhaps in the light of what might be easier to pass. Still, it’s good news that Paul is seeking common ground with liberals on what he and they rightly agree is the most fundamental of American rights.

Everyone should agree on that. Especially on July 4.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.