Florida Law Placed Limit on Who Had Voice in Government

A portion of the Florida constitution adopted in 1868. (Photo courtesy of Florida State Photographic Collection)

This is the second installment of a four-part series on the effort overturn a 150-year old law in Florida that strips felons of their voting rights for life. A proposal that would dramatically change the law will appear on the state ballot in November.

(CN) – When it comes to voting rights, Florida has been tenacious in its effort to see that felons rarely get their right to cast a ballot restored.

Where most states have moved toward ending lifetime bans on voting for those convicted of felonies, Florida’s law remains essentially unchanged from the day of its adoption 150 years ago.

As hard as it might be to believe today, the measure was the product of a compromise at the 1868 state constitutional convention intended to chart Florida’s course in a post-slavery United States.

During the convention, a faction of moderate Republicans successfully pushed more egalitarian party members to strike a deal with bitter white southerners who were fearful of black political power.

The measure that was ultimately folded into the state constitution guaranteed suffrage to all men over 21, but also included provisions diluting the black vote, mandating educational requirements, and excluding those convicted of a felony.

Today, the Sunshine State denies the right to vote to more adults than any other state in the country, according to research conducted by the Sentencing Project. And just as earlier laws restricted the black vote, Florida’s felony voting ban disproportionately affects black Floridians.

Of the more than 1.6 million former felons in the state, nearly one-third are black, even though African-Americans make up just 16 percent of the population.

One 2009 study found that in neighborhoods with a high concentration of felons, turnout decreases among all those registered to vote.

“Whatever the intent or rationale … it’s incontrovertible that the current approach disproportionally impacts minorities,” says Mark Schlakman, senior program director for the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Though the process for restoration of civil rights has changed slightly with each state administration, felons usually had to formally apply for restoration of voting rights and plead their case in front of the executive clemency board, made up of the governor and cabinet officials.

In 2007, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist streamlined the clemency process and gave automatic restoration to most non-violent felons. During his four years in office, 154,000 ex-offenders had their voting rights restored, according to the Office of Executive Clemency.

But after Gov. Rick Scott rode the Tea Party movement to the governor’s mansion in 2011, he changed the clemency process once again.

Scott rolled back the automatic restoration of rights and instituted a waiting period for all felons of five or seven years, depending on the severity of the crime. Then, ex-felons had to submit an application to the Office of Executive Clemency and join 10,000 other aspiring voters waiting in the state’s backlog.

In the last seven years of the Scott administration, more than 30,000 former felons applied for restoration of civil rights, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. Scott approved just 3,005.

Scott and the other members of the Florida cabinet did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In the past, Scott has defended the clemency process.

“The governor will always stand with victims of crime,” a spokesman said in a statement to Courthouse News earlier this year. “He believes that people who have been convicted of crimes like murder, violence against children and domestic violence, should demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime while being accountable to our communities.”

Schlakman, who served as assistant legal counsel and clemency aide to Gov. Lawton Chiles in the 1990s, says past administrations have hardly put a dent in the number of disenfranchised voters.

For example, the 154,000 felons who re-gained their right to vote under Crist “doesn’t even keep pace with the number of people in a four-year period returning to society.”

Moreover, Schlakman explains, the current reported backlog of 10,000 applicants does not take into account the inherited backlog of nearly 100,000 eliminated by Scott when he retroactively applied the new clemency rules.

More than 10 percent of the voting age population is denied the right to vote in Florida. Every year, state prisons release another 30,000 people ineligible to vote.

“What are the implications of that?” Schlakman asks. “Are we prepared to accept the implications of an expanding group of people with no voice in government?”

There must be a point where former felons fully re-join society, Schlakman says, “unless we take the view that punishment is in perpetuity.”

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