Everyone remembers that the 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes in Florida. Far fewer remember another important number from the state that year – 620,000, the Floridians who were barred from voting because state records showed, correctly or not, they had been convicted of a felony.
It didn’t matter whether their crime was murder or driving with a suspended license, nor whether they had fully served their sentence. In Florida, the voting ban is entrenched in the constitution, and it’s for life.
Today, Florida disenfranchises almost 1.5 million of its citizens, more than 11 states’ populations and roughly a quarter of the more than 6 million Americans who are unable to vote because of a criminal record.
Felon disenfranchisement is a destructive, pointless policy that hurts not only individuals barred from the ballot box, but American democracy at large. Its post-Civil War versions are explicitly racist, and its modern-day rationales are thin to nonexistent. It can make all the difference in places like Florida, which didn’t stop being competitive in 2000; the state remains a major presidential battleground, and victories for both parties in state and local elections are often narrow.
That could all change if a proposed constitutional amendment gets enough signatures to be placed on the ballot in November and wins enough support. The initiative would automatically restore voting rights to the vast majority of Floridians who have completed their sentence for a felony conviction, including any term of parole or probation.
This is a long overdue and urgently needed reform. The only way around Florida’s lifetime ban – as in the other three states with such a ban, Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia – is a direct, personal appeal to the governor. In the last few years, Terry McAuliffe, as Virginia’s governor, restored voting rights to more than 168,000 people, and the governors in Kentucky and Iowa granted roughly 9 in 10 of the restoration requests they received in the first half of the decade.
In contrast, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida grants only 8 percent of the requests that come before the state’s clemency board, which he leads – for a total of only a few hundred people each year, even though there is a backlog of more than 10,000 petitions awaiting review.
Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, took a far better approach, using his executive power to streamline the restoration process for certain classes of offenders, like those convicted of nonviolent felonies. Once people “have paid their debt, society should honor its part of the bargain and allow citizens to re-enter society,” he wrote in 2007. “To not do so is more than reckless or irresponsible, it is unjust.”
It’s hard to argue with that logic, but Scott found a way. Soon after taking office in 2011, he not only reversed Crist’s policies, but imposed a waiting period of at least five years after people had completed their sentences before they could plead with him to restore their voting rights. The message wasn’t meant to be welcoming, and Floridians have responded accordingly – the number of restoration requests has cratered during Scott’s tenure.
Anyone lucky enough to get a hearing before the governor has a few minutes to make his or her case for being a reformed citizen. These people, who have served their time and should not have to answer to anyone, must then endure condescending moral lectures from Scott and his Cabinet members, who don’t have to provide any explanation for their decisions. In one case involving a man who had been convicted of manslaughter after drunken driving, Scott, whose microphone remained on, turned and whispered to a board member, “That’s how my uncle died.”
With condolences to Scott, this is absurd. The right to vote is the most meaningful mark of citizenship in a democracy. It should be withheld only in extreme circumstances, and its restoration shouldn’t depend on the whims of a governor. What’s worse, many of these laws, especially in the South, are inextricable from their racist origins. Florida’s was enacted in 1868 – two years after the state thumbed its nose at the 14th Amendment – with the intent to prevent newly freed black people from voting. Those effects linger today, as 1 in 5 black adults in Florida remain disenfranchised because of a criminal record.
The new initiative, which excludes people convicted of murder or sexual offenses, will be placed on the ballot if it receives 766,200 signatures and will take effect if it earns at least 60 percent of the vote. Its advocates have submitted more than 1 million signatures to date, although many still need to be verified before the Feb. 1 deadline.
One hundred and fifty years after Florida enshrined this awful law, there’s only one clear way to get rid of it. Legal challenges have fallen short, the governor is no friend to voting rights, and lawmakers have limited power when it comes to constitutional amendments. It’s time for Florida’s voters to step up and restore the most fundamental constitutional right to more than 1 million of their neighbors.