By Sameer Jaywant
This is the first in a series of spotlights on individual states.
As one of the largest states in the Union, Florida leads the country in many things: it has one of the fastest growing economies, largest agricultural productions, and biggest tourism industries. While a leader in many ways, Florida also leads the country in voter disenfranchisement: it has the highest number of disenfranchised citizens in the country. Almost 1.7 million residents are ineligible to vote because of draconian felony disenfranchisement laws. No other state even comes close to matching Florida’s systematic denial of the vote to felons. Virginia takes second place with 508,680 total disenfranchised residents; by comparison, in 2015 Florida disenfranchised 500,000 African-Americans alone. By any measure, Florida’s widespread denial of the fundamental democratic right to vote is shameful; however, a community-led campaign to amend the Florida Constitution is gaining traction and could result in the restoration of the franchise to almost a quarter of the country’s entire disenfranchised population.
To understand why felon disenfranchisement in Florida is so extreme, it is worth examining Florida’s long and sordid history of voter suppression. Florida’s 1865 post-Civil War constitution granted the right to vote only to “free white male[s].” In 1868, as a condition of reentry to the Union, the state gave the franchise to non-white men. However, the 1868 constitution also mandated lifetime disenfranchisement for people who had been convicted of “bribery, perjury, larceny or of infamous crime,” and banned any person convicted of a felony from voting unless the Governor restored their rights. These laws were motivated by a desire to minimize the political impact of newly freed slaves; indeed, in 1881 a Florida legislator explicitly stated that the disenfranchisement provisions were intentionally used to suppress the black vote in the state.
In the Jim Crow era, Florida segregated its prisons, transportation, and schools, and employed the practice of “convict leasing,” where African-Americans were arrested and contracted out to work for private employers, with the state keeping the payments for the “leased” labor. This exploitative system incentivized mass incarceration and disenfranchisement; those African-Americans who were not jailed and sought to vote were subject to a poll tax, as well as harassment, violence, and intimidation. In 1956, a group of African-Americans registered in Liberty County; they were subjected to threats, arson, and fire bombs thrown on their property. All but one removed their names from the poll books; the one who refused was forced to leave the county. This brutal campaign of voter suppression was highly effective. For example, in 1961, 12,261 voting-age African-Americans lived in Gadsden County; only seven of them were registered to vote.
This pattern of voter suppression continues to this day: Florida’s felony disenfranchisement law is the same as it was 150 years ago. The Florida Constitution imposes a lifetime ban on voting for convicted felons, unless they receive a “restoration of civil rights.” The governor of Florida retains broad power over the clemency procedure that restores the franchise to convicted felons; each governor typically decides who can apply for voting rights restoration, what is required in the application process, and how long it takes for rights to be restored. When Charlie Crist entered office in 2007, he issued rules that significantly eased the enfranchisement process: individuals with nonviolent convictions who met basic eligibility criteria had their rights automatically restored upon release from prison, and individuals convicted of violent crimes were required to undergo a waiting period and be approved by the governor. The state’s Auditor General found that under the previous governor, Jeb Bush, 26% of individuals with felony convictions were eligible for restoration without a hearing; under Crist, 80% were eligible.
This movement towards restoring the right to vote in Florida abruptly ended with the election of Governor Rick Scott in 2010. Scott’s clemency rules imposed a mandatory minimum five-year post-release waiting period before anyone can apply for restoration. Also, those convicted of an expansive list of crimes must endure a longer waiting period and require a hearing before the state’s Clemency Board. The waiting period resets if an individual is arrested for any crime, even a misdemeanor that would otherwise not warrant disenfranchisement and even if no charges are ultimately brought. And Scott deliberately created a labyrinthine application process that requires a trove of documents to be submitted, individual review by the Clemency Board (which does not have to give any explanation for denying applications), and approval by Scott and two members of the state’s Cabinet. If an applicant is denied the restoration of voting rights, that applicant must wait two years before re-applying and beginning the process anew. As during the Jim Crow era, these purposely restrictive and anti-democratic measures are brutally effective: 155,000 felons regained the right to vote during Crist’s single term as governor, compared to roughly 2,500 during Scott’s six years in office.
While Florida leads the country in disenfranchising its own citizens, those citizens are now taking action to make a difference. A statewide coalition of nonpartisan faith and civic organizations have proposed the Voting Restoration Amendment; the proposal would amend the state constitution so that individuals who complete their sentence (including parole or probation) would automatically have their voting rights restored. The amendment excludes those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, and would continue to require the Governor and Cabinet to vote to restore their right to the franchise. The Voting Restoration Amendment would essentially enshrine the expansive Crist rules into the state constitution, meaning that future governors could not unilaterally roll back the automatic restoration provisions. It would place Florida’s procedures in line with most other states, and open the possibility of restoring voting rights for the vast majority of convicted felons in the state.
In April 2017, the Florida Supreme Court approved the Voting Restoration Amendment for placement on the ballot in 2018; however, to meet state guidelines the initiative must first be signed by at least 766,200 voters, with the signatures coming from at least 14 of Florida’s 27 congressional districts. The petition needs roughly 700,000 more signatures, and even if it is ultimately placed on the 2018 ballot, it will require 60% of the vote to be approved. Still, the recent Supreme Court opinion has provided momentum for the campaign, which is supported by experts from both liberal groups like the Brennan Center and conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation. Florida ranks 47th in the Franchise Project Voting Access Scorecard, and felon disenfranchisement is only one of the many issues that plague access to democracy in the state. Still, the Voting Restoration Amendment would enfranchise more people than the entire population of Delaware, which would be a huge step in the right direction. The Amendment presents an opportunity for citizens to circumvent anti-democratic leaders and utilize the power of civic engagement and community activism to restore the franchise to their fellow Floridians and Americans.
To get involved with the Voting Restoration Amendment campaign, check out this website.