A Voting-Rights Debate Reveals Why Democrats Keep Losing

While 2020 hopefuls debate hypotheticals, state-level Republicans are curtailing the expansion of the franchise in Florida.

Campaigners for Florida's Fourth Amendment to restore felon voting rights (Wilfredo Lee / AP)

Two separate stories this week about criminal justice and the right to vote offer a sharp microcosm of the difference between the major U.S. political parties.

The Democratic presidential field has spent most of the week tying itself in knots over whether prisoners should be able to vote—an important but largely abstract debate. Meanwhile, Florida Republicans are close to passing a law that allows felons to vote after serving their time, but places serious hurdles before them.

The debate demonstrates much about the two parties. It contrasts the Democratic tendency to focus on national solutions to problems with the Republican emphasis on state-level policy. It shows a Democratic tendency toward abstraction, and a Republican emphasis on action. And it suggests why conservative policy ideas are winning across the nation, despite evidence that America is a center-left country.

The Democratic conversation kicked off during a CNN town hall on Monday, where Senator Bernie Sanders said that people serving time in prison should be allowed to vote. He mentioned that Vermont’s state constitution guarantees that right. This is a neat demonstration of how Sanders’s presence in the race shakes up the Democratic primary. While Democrats have focused in recent years on the importance of re-enfranchising people who have completed prison sentences, there has been less focus on the people who are still behind bars.

Sanders forced his rivals into a difficult spot: Should they agree with him, satisfying a party base ever more focused on social justice, at the risk of being tarred as soft on crime? (Sanders himself took heat for saying that even the Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote, although that’s the obvious implication of such a rule.) Or should they tack right against Sanders, courting centrist voters but risking activist backlash?

Mayor Pete Buttigieg opted for the latter, saying that while in prison, felons shouldn’t be able to vote. Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro tried to split the difference, saying they backed voting rights for nonviolent-felon prisoners. Senator Elizabeth Warren was cautious, saying, “I’m not there yet.” Senator Kamala Harris was more cautious still, calling for a “conversation.”

Conversations are useful, and policy is better made deliberately than haphazardly. The question of the right of felons to vote is important—though not important to as many Americans as whether ex-cons can vote, nor as politically advantageous for those who support it. It’s unlikely, however, to be a defining issue of the Democratic campaign, and unlikely to be a top priority if the Democratic nominee wins the 2020 presidential election.

Contrast that with this week’s proceedings in Tallahassee. In November, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment that automatically gives people who have committed felony offenses, except for murder and sex crimes, the right to vote once they complete their prison sentence as well as parole or probation. (Previously, people could apply to a state board for restoration of rights after five years, though a small portion of requests were granted.) Although some experts contended that the law might have little real impact on elections, the prospect of 1.5 million new voters in one of the swingiest states in the nation got partisan attention. Democrats hoped that ex-felons would add to their coalition; Republicans feared the same.

After the amendment passed, the Florida legislature began working on enabling legislation—in other words, hashing out the nitty-gritty of how the amendment would work in practice. Both chambers of the state house are controlled by Republicans, as is the governorship. On Wednesday, the state house passed a bill, along partisan lines, that would require people who want to vote to pay all court fees, fines, and restitution associated with their case. The state senate is considering a version that requires that restitution be paid, but not fees and fines in many cases.

Many advocates see the bill as a betrayal of the amendment’s spirit. By insisting on payment, which may be substantial, the bill would guarantee that many of the people who appeared to be in line for rights restoration under the November vote will never actually be able to cast a ballot.

In short, while Democrats are engaged in a largely theoretical exercise on the national level, Republicans are moving aggressively to achieve their political goals at the state level.

The Democratic Party has long had a national focus. In part, that’s ideological: The party tends to believe in top-down government solutions, making Washington a natural locus for policy, while Republicans have long emphasized local control. It’s also historically contingent. Starting from the 1930s, Democrats often held a strong advantage over Republicans in national politics.

Since the 2010 election, Democrats have also been badly overmatched at the local level, and while the party made significant gains in 2018, Republicans still have the upper hand in state capitals. That has allowed the GOP to implement its policy views on a range of issues. Republican-led legislatures have expanded gun rights, restricted abortion rights, and hamstrung organized labor, to choose just a few. This isn’t to say that the entire Republican Party is a well-oiled machine for implementing policy, particularly at the national level. Nine years after the Affordable Care Act passed, the GOP still hasn’t come up with a plan to replace it, despite repeated promises.

On the question of felons and voting, however, the pattern holds. Republican actions on the state level speak louder than Democrats’ conversations.