Friday, April 6, 2012

Recount and Felon Disenfranchisement

Movie poster courtesy Tampa Bay Times
Last night I finally saw the 2008 HBO movie Recount. It is a docudrama about the aftermath of the 2000 Bush/Gore election, from the first reports of the results up to the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore.

I arrived in the United States in July 2001, to a shell-shocked Berkeley, where the wall-to-wall consensus was that the election was stolen by Bush supporters and that Al Gore was the President-in-exile. The confusion and rage intensified shortly after my arrival by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was a newcomer, and for the life of me, could not figure out who had voted for Bush; I was yet to realize how deep the rift was and how partisanship wrecked and hollowed American politics. So, it was a fascinating experience to see a retelling of the story of that election, with the last twelve years in mind; much of what we experience politically today can date back to that fateful election.

What stuck out for me, though, was not so much the righteousness of one side or other; I entirely believed Ted Olson's integrity when he said, with a straight face, to a room full of Bush supporters, that Bush had won each and every one of the recounts. Instead, what filled me with rage was the cynical use the Florida state apparatus made of felon disenfranchisement laws.

In the film, a Democratic party volunteer knocks on a door. A guarded, sad man opens the door. The volunteer asks for his name. "Yeah?" says the man. "You were turned away at the ballots this election, right?" The man replies in the affirmative, his face ashen and disaffected. "I'm Jeremy Bash from the Democratic party. Can we talk?" Says the volunteer, and the man lets him in.

It turns out that, in Florida's enthusiasm to deny the vote to its formerly incarcerated citizens, the list makers included many non-felons in the list. The outrage among the ranks is palpable.

But the strongest scene, for me, is the ending scene of the movie. Bush's acceptance speech is shown on TV, and as he addresses the people who did not vote for him, he promises to be their president, too, and to earn their respect. The camera moves around the room, showing the man turned away at the ballots on wrong information of his being a felon. His face is hard to read, but it seems to betray a web of complex emotions: Rage? Disbelief? The first seeds of disaffection, disengagement, dissent? The deep realization that he was locked out of his country's political process, robbed of the choice to vote for either of the candidates?

This scene speaks volumes for me as we're getting ready for a hearing before the California Court of Appeals with regard to the right to vote for post-realignment inmates in California jails, and for folks on community post-release supervision. And it is gaining importance as we begin to experience the 2012 presidential campaign. We think that the California bureaucratic apparatus has wrongly interpreted the California constitution to deny felons, whether they are in prison or in jail, the right to vote. Not only does this interpretation fly in the face of the intent behind realignment--a new world of community corrections--but by denying civic integration, it is a barrier to re-entry and a successful welcoming back to society.

Inmates have an important voice of their own and important insights into the criminal process and public expenditure. Some of you may recall a series of posts, like this one and this one, that appeared on the SF Bay Guardian by Just A Guy, an inmate with a keen eye for big-picture politics and economics. This is an important voice that needs to be heard. And, as Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen have repeatedly proven, this voice can make or break an election (and would, indeed, have reversed the 2000 election, as well as another Presidential election and eight Congressional elections.) Thinking about yesterday's film reinforced my conviction that I would fight for enfranchisement no matter what direction the projected vote would go; it's no coincidence, however, that inmates and parolees, disproportionately poor and of color, would vote against the regime that subjected them to lengthy, punitive, dehumanizing and unnecessary prison sentences under abysmal conditions.

Florida no longer uses the flawed list that played such an important part in 2000, and that had such disturbing racial implications.

The movie, regardless of your political stance and sentiments about the 2000 elections, is terrific and highly recommended.

No comments: