On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver examined America’s flawed disenfranchisement laws, which strip convicted felons of their voting rights – in some cases permanently. The host focused his analysis on Florida, the country’s “disenfranchisement capital.”
Oliver opened by breaking down the laws on a national level, noting that an estimated 6.1 million Americans are currently barred from voting because they committed a felony at some point in their lives. “That is a lot,” he said. “For perspective, that is like if you took all the people who bought a copy of Robin Thicke’s divorce opera Paula and then added almost 6 million more people.”
The number is particularly skewed, he noted, considering that the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent analysis found that only “18 percent of all felony convictions [were] for a violent felony.”
While the laws for reinstating voting rights vary state to state, Oliver argued that Florida’s approach is the worst. Around one-and-a-half million of its citizens – nearly 10 percent of its adult population, including “over one in five African-Americans” – still can’t vote after completing sentences for felony convictions. And the system for regaining voting rights is particularly convoluted, with convicted felons forced to apply, then argue, their cases in front of a clemency board that often uses arbitrary and arguably biased questioning.
That panel, which only meets four times a year, doesn’t have the bandwidth to review every case. And while former Florida governor Charlie Crist restored the voting rights of 155,315 people in four years, current Governor Rick Scott is only averaging around 400 a year. “That is meaningful,” Oliver argued, “especially in a state where elections tend to have very narrow margins. Trump only won Florida by 100,000 votes, and President Bush famously won it by just 537.”
But the comedian ended with some positive news, noting that “Florida has a chance to fix” this problem in their upcoming November elections. A constitutional amendment called the Voting Restoration Amendment will be on the ballot, and if it passes, it will grant people with felony convictions – except in the cases of murder and sex crimes – the right to vote after completing their sentence. “That could give as many as 1.4 million people the right to vote,” he said. “But the amendment needs a 60 percent majority to pass.”
Oliver tried to appeal to Floridians with a sincere yet satirical speech, implementing a cocktail, flamingo and backdrop laced with palm trees. “I know that we make fun of you a lot, Florida, because of all the stupid things that happen where you live,” he said. “You’re probably expecting me to steer away from all that and appeal to your innate goodness and sense of reason, but I’m not gonna do that. Instead, I’d like to double down and suggest that it’s precisely because of all that glorious stupidity that you should innately appreciate the value of second chances. I mean, come on, Florida. You’re Florida!”