The defining quality of a leader is that instead of focusing on doing things right, they focus on doing the right things. The “right things” are matters both moral and ethical in nature where leaders have to make judgments in situations in order for the group to successful. In SPA 396: Leaders and Leadership, we understand leaders as having to face dilemmas that require choices between competing sets of values and priorities that makes doing the right thing incredibly difficult. In my own service work, I have realized this process of decision-making requires an immense amount of courage and willpower to do what is right even when the answer is plain in sight.
In working with the Roosevelt Institute, I have been completing my service work with Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a statewide coalition, spearheading a ballot initiative to amend Florida’s Constitution to repeal the Jim Crow-era policy that bars Floridians with a felony conviction from the polls. Florida is only one-of-four states in the country with a lifetime ban on voting upon conviction of a felony. No wonder then, that Florida is the state in the country with the largest concentration of former felons who are unable to vote— totaling to be more than 1.6 million.
Before I began working with the coalition, the solution appeared simple. If a convict has completed the terms of their sentence and paid their debt to society, they should have their voting rights restored. However, this issue turned out to be more nuanced than one would expect. After speaking with elected officials and community organizations across the state, it became increasingly apparent that the right to vote is a politically complicated matter where notions of personal prejudices having got in the way of what is ethically or morally right. In the process, the vote itself has been politicized leading to the disenfranchisement of millions of hardworking, tax-paying citizens. These conflicting personal prejudices have caused partisanship in the Florida legislature and has stalled all attempts to pass a bill for the restoration of voting rights.
As a community organizer for Floridians for a Fair Democracy, I have been working on a referendum that aims to shift the decision-making power from the gridlocked legislature to the voters. In a dysfunctional political system, ballot referendums allow for engagement in direct democracy and places the power back into the hands of the constituents. In my role, I have worked to build out the engagement strategy of the initiative and broaden its presence to 9 different college and universities across the state. We have been organizing to place our amendment on the 2018 General Election ballot. In October, we were successful in collecting the 76,632 petitions necessary to trigger a legal review by Florida’s Attorney General and Florida Supreme Court. If approved, we will have until the General Election to collect 766,200 (eight percent of turnout from the previous presidential election) necessary to place it on the ballot. The last several months we have worked to developed a set of organizing tools including a fact sheet, info-graphic, and a set of talking points to assist other college organizers to collect petitions and raise awareness about the issue on their college campus.
In both my course and service work, I have encountered one of the most common ethical dilemmas that leaders from all fields face. Theorist Rushworth Kidder identifies this as being an ethical dilemma of Justice versus Mercy that is common to our experiences of leadership. Kidder explains that this paradigm guides our decision-making as to whether to excuse a person’s misbehavior because of the extenuating circumstances that drove them to commit a wrong. What I have learned from my service work is that once someone commits a wrong and pays restitution to society, they have showed they are deserving of a second chance and mercy. Being able to forgive, learn, and move on are key qualities of leadership that constitutes our ethics and morals. In my own work, I have learned the importance of understanding the reasons that lead to “criminal” behavior from a holistic point of view and understand the societal driving factors at play. By understanding these factors, we can begin the process of forgiveness and allow our citizens reintegrate back into society and move from past our personal prejudices.
In short, we have to hold leaders accountable for their actions and inaction on policies that stand to unite us civically as a nation. We must expect nothing short of courageous in times of difficulty and controversy and hope they will do what is right and not what is politically convenient. It is only then we can end felon disenfranchisement in Florida and restore the voting rights to millions. Until then, we have a lot of work to do.
Carl Amritt is a Political Science student pursuing a Masters in Public Administration in the School of Public Affairs at American University. Carl is enrolled in Dr. Paul Christopher Manuel’s SPA 396: Leaders and Leadership course that aims to understand some of the main concerns of leadership studies including civic virtue, politics, and freedom in relation to public affairs. To learn more about Carl’s work, visit: http://rooseveltinstitute.org/rights-restoration/