Florida's Former Felons Struggle To Vote This Election Year

Mar 18, 2016

This Tuesday, Florida voters weighed in on who should be the next president of the United States. But some 1.5 million Floridians are left out of that voting process: convicted felons.

Credit The Sentencing Project / http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=133

“Florida is one of the worst states to commit a felony and expect ever to vote again, because you won’t be able to,” he said.

That’s Richard Scher, a political science professor at the University of Florida. Under state law, all felons have their civil rights permanently removed, including their right to vote. There is a process to get those rights back, involving an extensive application and review before the state’s Clemency Board, made up of the Governor’s cabinet. Desmond Meade heads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He’s working with a man who has been waiting for a hearing since 2007.

“You’re looking at an American citizen, waiting upwards of 15, possibly 20 years, after they have completed their sentence, just to be able to have a hearing to see if their rights will be restored. And even then it’s not guaranteed,” he said.

Michael McDonald specializes in American elections at the University of Florida and the Brookings Institution, and he says Florida’s rights restoration process is one of the most stringent in the nation.

“Florida is on the extreme on this. Florida not only disenfranchises prisoners but they also disenfranchise people who are on parole or probation, and they disenfranchise people who have ever been convicted of a felony,” he said.

And even in Florida, the process has varied considerably under different governor’s administrations. Under former Governor Charlie Crist, over 100,000 felons regained their voting rights. That flow has slowed to a trickle under Governor Rick Scott, who has restored rights to about 2,000 people. Here’s Desmond Meade again.

“And I can tell you this: we believe that the decision on which American citizens get the right to vote, and which do not get the right to vote, should not be left in the hands of any politician, whether they be Republican, Democrat, or Independent,” he said.

In Florida, disenfranchised felons make up about 10% of the voting population, and researchers say there are political ramifications for these policies. Richard Scher says there is a psychological burden as well.

“They carry the Mark of Cain with them forever. It just means that no, they’re not really restored to full citizenship, they’re not really first class citizens. Even if they paid their debt to society, even if they served their time,” he said.

Critics of civil rights restoration say, if you break the law, you shouldn’t have a hand in shaping the law. Richard Scher has something to say on that front.

“People who skirt around the law are nonetheless involved in shaping it, so I don’t really see where there’s a big difference between them and the felon. I think what the real issue is a) race, but b) also that we carry around this notion that once a criminal always a criminal,” he said.

Like many aspects of the criminal justice system, Michael McDonald says felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects black men.

“It does not escape civil rights groups’ notice to say that this is a burden that substantially falls upon African American males, who upwards of a quarter of them are ineligible to vote in Florida because of their felony status,” he said.

Greg James is a reverend and community organizer in Tallahassee, and he’s also a former felon.

“I am one who cannot vote. Paid my debt, paid my restitution, served my time, but I can’t vote. But I do have a voice!” he said.

But a voice is not a vote. That’s why Desmond Meade and the group Floridians for a Fair Democracy are vying to put a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot, to establish automatic rights restoration. That amendment won’t come in time for people hoping to vote in the 2016 presidential election. Florida’s Clemency Board will meet two more times before November, but folks will have to get in line: there is a backlog of some 20,000 cases.