Our tradition teaches us that we can make amends. Throughout the High Holy Day season we remind ourselves that we have the ability and the obligation to improve ourselves, to repair the harms we may have caused, and to forgive one another for our transgressions. As Jews, we recognize that we all make mistakes, and so our sense of what is just and what is right teaches us that, except in the most extreme circumstances, no one should be punished forever because of a one-time mistake.
But our State of Florida does not. Instead, it tells the 1.4 million Floridians who have a felony conviction on their record that they never can fully and truly earn their way back into society by having their voting rights restored. As a vestige from the Jim Crow era, Florida is one of only four states that does not automatically restore voting rights. Instead, former felons must wait their turn to appear before the state’s Clemency Board, a kangaroo court that is guided not by justice, repentance, and individuals’ sincere remorse, but by the whims of the governor and his cabinet. Local and national news reports and commentaries have demonstrated how truly broken this system is. The tens of thousands who have unsuccessfully applied for restoration are left disenfranchised for life.
As Jews, we know what it feels like to be excluded from the community, to have our political voices silenced by those in power. Even as the Enlightenment and representative democracy was spreading throughout Europe, our ancestors often found themselves on the outside of the political conversation and excluded from political influence. That, along with more vicious forms of persecution, drove many of our families across the Atlantic to enjoy the protections that the U.S. has to offer.
Here in the United States, the Jewish community has always benefitted from the protection of our voting rights and our ability to raise our voices in the communal conversation. From the time that President George Washington assured the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island that our nation would give “persecution no assistance,” we were able to take comfort in the knowledge that we could fulfill the Talmud’s instruction that no leader should be chosen without the consultation of the community (Brachot 55a). We have used this right to demand protections as a minority in our communities. We have raised our voices together for Israel, compelling our elected leaders to protect her security and provide for her in times of need. We have spoken out to express our core values, imploring those in power to demonstrate justice and mercy.
This is one of those times when we need to do just that. Over the summer and into the High Holy Day season, a coalition of Jewish organizations began working together to mobilize the Jewish community around this issue. In partnership with Second Chances Florida, a non-partisan grassroots organization, synagogues throughout the state, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of Jewish Women, and JOIN for Justice has mobilized our fellow Floridians throughout the state to bring Amendment 4 to this November’s ballot. Should it pass, Amendment 4 would automatically restore voting rights for former felons once they have completed the entirety of their sentence (those who have been convicted of murder or certain sexual crimes would not be eligible for automatic restoration). This coalition has brought people together in conversation about this important issue, studying how the texts of our tradition repeatedly speak of welcoming the repentant person back into the community’s graces once teshuvah, repentance, has been done.
As we make our ways to the polls on or before Nov. 6, we should remember our own historical struggle for political autonomy and the right to vote. We can reflect on the teaching in the Talmud that those who have performed teshuvah, who have repented and made amends for their past misdeeds should not be reminded of those misdeeds (Baba Metzia 58b). By continuing to disenfranchise former felons, we create a constant reminder of their past, and put them in a second class of citizenry.
Our 1.4 million fellow Floridians have done their part to earn their right to vote, now it is our time to do ours and vote Yes on 4.