It was through Javier Saavedra that I learned the meaning of ¿Qué bolá? — roughly “What’s Good?” — a Cuban greeting exchanged with a warm embrace and familiar handshake that can be overheard on any Miami city block.
I spent the past three years in Miami training as a physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital, the largest public hospital in the country. Of all the people I came across, I developed perhaps one of my closest personal friendships with Javier, 33, a visual artist and first generation Cuban American.
Javier has had several run-ins with the law involving drugs, and now spends his time picking up life’s various pieces and creating beauty out of them through painting. Of the many burdens he carried, one that weighed disproportionately heavy on his mind and spirit, was his inability to vote. That disenfranchisement seemed to strike a chord at the root of basic human dignity, self-worth and self-determination. After the 2016 election, Javier left Florida for a place where he felt more agency in his future.
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Florida had been disenfranchising more than 1 million citizens for violations as small as driving with a suspended license. On Nov. 6, a Florida ballot measure passed that restores voting rights immediately to former felons (except those convicted of murder and sexual assault), one of the largest expansions since the early 1970s, when the voting age was lowered to 18 nationwide.
As a physician, I believe that restoring voting rights is imperative not only as a matter of basic human rights, but also as a matter of public health.
Voting your interests can impact your health
Voter disenfranchisement, and specifically voting restrictions on former felons, takes a disproportionate toll on communities of color and is an institutionalized form of discrimination.
In Florida, nearly 20 percent of black voters were kept from the polls because of the state’s felony restrictions. In America, nearly 6 million former felons have been kept out of the voting booth. Black men are affected by voter disenfranchisement at a rate that is seven times higher than any other group.
Ending that discrimination nationwide gives former felons the power to vote their own interests — and, most important, that includes voting on life-and-death issues affecting health.
Mortality rates among former felons is significantly higher than rates among populations that have never been incarcerated. And health coverage for former felons is spotty — many don’t have coverage upon release and can’t get it — leaving them to deal with a greater prevalence of chronic illness such as HIV/AIDS and diabetes on their own, which often leads to emergency room visits after symptoms have gotten too unbearable to handle.
African-Americans in particular suffer from stark differences in health outcomes compared with other ethnic groups.
For example, infant mortality is more than twice as likely among blacks than whites. These disparities are largely driven by differences in both access to care and other social and economic determinants. Blacks and Latinos are also more likely than other groups to live in or near environmentally toxic areas.
People who can vote their interests have greater control over the health and safety of their communities. That voice is one that every American deserves.
More states need to follow
Despite Florida’s expansion, the right to equal suffrage is far from realized — Iowa and Kentucky still disenfranchise former felons for life, in addition to partial restrictions in several other states, leaving millions without the right to equal suffrage across the country.
Tellingly, these voter disenfranchisement laws were born of racist origins. Dr. Jonathan Purtle of Drexel University has noted that although the 14th Amendment provided a constitutional basis for voter disenfranchisement “for participation in rebellion, or other crime,” the actual implementation of such policies was explicitly racially motivated. He notes that in 1850, about one-third of states had disenfranchisement laws. Within 20 years, after the 15th Amendment (which gave blacks the right to vote) was ratified, nearly 75 percent of states had them.
In our current political environment, filled with historic baggage, the beauty of America still shows. Despite our imperfections, we are endlessly approaching a more perfect union. Florida’s efforts to restore voting rights is not just a second chance for incarcerated citizens. It, and other efforts like it, are a second chance for America.
The state’s actions should serve as a bellwether for voting restoration rights across the country for the millions who are still disenfranchised.
I’m grateful those days are over for my friend Javier.
I still talk to him, though he lives in California now, so the exchanges of ¿Qué bolá? are done by phone. In that state, voting rights are automatic for former felons who have completed parole or who are on probation.
I imagine my friend now with a voice that affords him the dignity that should be afforded to all Americans, and which he couldn’t fully realize while he lived in Miami.
As a physician, I work to preserve fundamental human rights through medicine.
As Americans, we can all do the same. Let’s use our vote and our voices to ensure that all former felons get their fundamental human rights back.
Dr. Akash Goel is an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.