Oliver talks voting rights and felony convictions on Last Week Tonight


Felony disenfranchisement leaves millions of Americans without the right to vote. On Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver explores the subject.

Voting is one of those things that many Americans can take for granted. For that group, voting happens if you can get around to it. Well, if you even remember to go to one of those polling places on election day or to mail in your ballot ahead of the deadline. It can even seem like a chore, to the point where there’s a sweet little bribe of an “I Voted” sticker and the smug self-aware social media posts that follow.

The upcoming midterm elections in November have made voting a more frequent topic of conversation. You likely have an opinion about the current state of politics and where you think it should go. You may even have a vague to strong sense about the duty of voting, about how it’s a vital part of being an American citizen. Just like you pay taxes and obey laws, you need to vote.

That’s all very true… unless you’re a felon. In fact, according to Last Week Tonight host John Oliver, an estimated 6 million Americans can’t vote because they’ve been convicted of a felony. With so many people missing from the voting process, what has been lost?

Furthermore, why should you care if convicted felons can’t vote? Felonies include things like kidnapping and murder, after all.  Should such a person’s voice be heard, too?

But, then, what about people who are convicted of nonviolent felony charges, such as those involving drugs? What if they’ve proven that, by all other metrics, they are upstanding, law-abiding citizens? How much should someone’s mistakes follow them throughout their lives?

This lack of voting rights, called felony disenfranchisement, is also effectively taxation without representation. “Historically, that’s been a bit of a sticking point for America,” pointed out Oliver.

Florida’s case

To be fair, some places return the right to vote after a certain period of time and when certain conditions are fulfilled. Yet, that does not apply in all places. Some states hang on to felony disenfranchisement for a person’s whole life, making it nigh impossible for someone to regain their civil rights.

One of those places happens to be the traditionally conservative state of Florida. Felony disenfranchisement here, as elsewhere, is persistent and more likely to happen to people of color. Estimates show that as many as one in five African-American adults in Florida cannot vote because of previous felony convictions. As a result, said Oliver, “Florida is the disenfranchisement capital of America.”

How did Florida get here and how is it currently handling the situation? It’s worth remembering that Florida’s governor is the only person in the state who can restore a felon’s voting rights. Current governor Rick Scott has implemented a years-long system that involves a trip to the infamously unappealing state capital of Tallahassee.

Scott serves as the head of the state clemency board, which hears the appeals of all the state’s convicted felons. That board does not operate under any standard set of laws or regulations. Scott himself has repeatedly said that the board’s decisions are based entirely on their opinions and personal estimation of the situation.

“Because there are no formal standards, the committee can decide what’s important,” said Oliver. That means that relatively minor offenses like traffic tickets could overturn someone’s bid for clemency.

A petitioner can have their personal life scrutinized, too. One member of the board has repeatedly asked people if they go to church. What place does that question have in a panel that determines whether or not someone gets to vote in elections?

Appealing to Florida’s voters

Then, there’s the simple, yet overwhelming matter of numbers. Florida’s panel only meets four times a year. It cannot stand up to the number of cases and individuals that stand in front of it, which is currently about 400 individuals. Even if the clemency board was made up entirely of people who rubber-stamped their approvals, the rate of hearings would still build up a significant backlog.

Things may change, however. Florida is now considering a Voting Restoration Amendment that could give thousands of people the right to vote, barring major felony convictions like murder. However, that amendment hasn’t passed yet.

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As a result, Oliver directed an appeal to the people of Florida. Well, at least those who can actually vote in the upcoming election.

Given the severity of other jokes made at the state’s expense, Oliver’s inflatable palm trees and hideous Florida Gators visor was relatively tame. Perhaps that’s enough to make Florida’s eligible voters think seriously about extending their right to other upstanding members of their community.