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Jeb! vs. the Right to Vote



Pema Levy has an essential story about the alleged reasonable, moderate, thinking-person’s conservative currently languishing in the remainder bin of the Republican primary and his active role in keeping former felons disenfranchised:

The year Ghent stood before Bush at the podium, the consequences of felon disenfranchisement were particularly profound. The 2000 presidential election was ultimately decided by a 537-vote margin in Florida. More than 500,000 ex-felons were barred from the polls, including at least 139,000 African Americans, who vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. Their exclusion almost certainly changed the outcome of the race. The beneficiary, of course, was Jeb Bush’s brother.

Bush, today a leading candidate for the Repub­lican presidential nomination, did not invent this quasi-monarchical process. But he did embrace it. Mother Jones obtained more than 1,000 pages of transcripts of clemency hearings held during Bush’s tenure. Together, they provide a glimpse into his moral reasoning as he weighed the worthiness of the appeals by thousands of ex-felons hoping to regain their rights. The transcripts, covering two years of hearings, show that Bush seems to have relied on an entrenched set of personal values in his rulings. If a crime involved alcohol abuse—such as DUI manslaughter cases, which were relatively common—he liked to see several years of complete sobriety before he would restore the person’s rights. He was loath to approve the applications of petitioners he felt were not sufficiently remorseful or did not take full responsibility for their crimes. He sometimes asked wives in attendance to keep their husbands in check. Ex-felons needed to prove, over years of good behavior, that they had reformed. Bush often denied clemency simply because he believed not enough time had elapsed since the completion of the petitioner’s sentence. He did not appear to question the basic premise of his judgments: that the right to vote should be contingent on a citizen’s moral rectitude.


Under Jeb Bush, Florida undertook a second voter purge—again with a sharp racial skew—in 2004, the next presidential election year. Of the 48,000 people on the second list, 22,000 were black. Just 61 people on the list were Hispanic, at a time when Florida Hispanics, including the Cuban community in Miami, voted solidly Republican. After the media made the list public, and with a potential lawsuit looming, Bush abandoned the purge.

In the beginning, felon disenfranchisement “was racial,” says Sancho, an outspoken critic of both purges. But after the 2000 election, he observed, it “turned into a partisan issue.” In his new book, Give Us the Ballot, journalist Ari Berman argues that the 2000 election inspired efforts to suppress voting across the country, after Republicans witnessed their party’s electoral success in Florida when thousands of Democratic-leaning voters were kept off the rolls.

Bush used it very badly, but as Levy explains the system is a rotten one. Letting the ability of free adults to exercise the most fundamental political right come down to inherently arbitrary decisions by the executive branch is just a terrible idea.

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