James Ridgeway writes on the mechanisms that keep voting rights away from felons. In Florida, for example, home to around a quarter-million black men with felony convictions, the new-old rules force “any former felon who wanted to regain voting rights to appeal directly to the governor.”
What does that mean? In a 2004 Vanity Fair piece titled “The Path to Florida,” David Margolick and a team of reporters looked at the manifold ways that the state can keep people off the rolls. They attended one voting rights-restoration hearing for Beverly Brown, “a black Miamian who has been applying for seven years.”
“Thank you, Governor and Cabinet,” she says, her voice trembling as she looks up at Jeb Bush, in a beige suit, and three of his cabinet members, seated above her on the dais. “I’m a graduate patient-care technician, and there’s nothing more I’d like to do than to utilize my skills to help others.” She has been lucky enough to have had some private health-care jobs; recently she cared for a young quadriplegic. But what she’d really like is to get a state license—something she can’t do unless her civil rights are restored. Her convictions, all drug-related and nonviolent, date back almost 20 years, except for a more recent conviction for having been caught with pot.
“Since when have you been drug- and alcohol-free?” Jeb asks flatly, looking up from her file.
“About nine years,” says Brown.
“O.K., in 2001 there—you were convicted of marijuana possession?”
“I had—yes, it was in my possession, but it didn’t belong to me. Someone left it in my car.”
“I have another question,” Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher later asks, looking at her file. “What is ‘wailing rock cocaine’?”
Brown shifts nervously. “O.K., sir, that is not my charge.”
“I just want to know what is ‘wailing rock cocaine’?” he asks.
Brown’s face flushes with panic and confusion. “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
Bush gives her another once-over and delivers his verdict. “I’d like to take this case under advisement.” It’s not a no, but it’s not a yes either. Over the next couple of weeks, Brown will try to find out why the case has been on hold, but she’ll get no answers; Bush is not required to give any.
I have no idea what “wailing rock cocaine” is either. I do know that the list of felonies in Florida is long – at least 404 offenses qualify – and include Failure to Authenticate Pedigree Papers (499.0051) and Transmission of Pornography by Electronic Means of Equipment (847.0137) and Failure to Obtain Workers’ Compensation Coverage (440.01(1)).