Florida Politics

Florida ‘radically out-of-step’ in denying felons right to vote, report says

Felons cannot vote in Florida unless they wait five to seven years and then apply to a state board — comprising the governor and Cabinet — to have their voting rights restored.
Felons cannot vote in Florida unless they wait five to seven years and then apply to a state board — comprising the governor and Cabinet — to have their voting rights restored. Miami Herald file photo

A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice takes Florida to task for its law denying voting rights to felons unless they successfully navigate an arduous and lengthy process to get those rights back.

The Brennan Center calls Florida’s law “radically out of step with policies around the rest of the country” and “one of the harshest laws in the nation.” The law needs to be replaced,the report said.

MORE: Read the full report

According to the report, released this month, 1.6 million Floridians are denied voting rights because of the state law. Those residents represent more than 10 percent of the state’s voting-age population. A disproportionate number, nearly one-third, are black.

“Florida’s criminal disenfranchisement law is rooted in some of our country’s most discriminatory voting practices, and it continues to have its intended effects today,” said the report’s author, Erika Wood, a New York Law School professor and director of the Voting Rights and Civic Participation Project of the Impact Center for Public Interest Law.

“It is time for Florida to learn from the past and then leave it behind. The right to vote should not be used as a tool for lifetime punishment,” Wood added.

In her report published by the Brennan Center, Wood wrote that “Florida has one of the most punishing and restrictive criminal disenfranchisement laws” and “denies the right to vote to more of its residents than any state.”

Her findings are consistent with other recent research that shows Florida is an outlier in its practice.

MORE: “Florida leads nation in disenfranchising former felons”

The Brennan Center report is especially critical of Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who made the rights restoration process more difficult upon taking office five years ago.

Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said Scott’s “position hasn’t changed on this … He supports the current clemency process.”

The report refers to Florida as having a virtual “lifetime” ban for felons’ voting rights because the process to get them restored is so cumbersome.

Felons must petition the State Board of Executive Clemency — a four-member panel comprising the governor and the Cabinet (the attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner). Under rules Scott imposed in 2011, felons have to wait a minimum of five years after completing their sentence before applying to demonstrate they won’t re-offend. Felons convicted of violent offenses and other serious crimes must wait seven years before asking to have their civil rights restored.

Florida law gives the governor “broad discretion over who may vote,” Wood wrote, because the law requires that the governor must vote in favor, along with a majority of the Cabinet, for a felon’s civil rights to be restored.

The governor also has the power to draft rules for the clemency process, which “determine who is eligible to apply for voting rights restoration, the requirements of the application process, and the time it takes for rights to be restored,” Wood wrote.

Wood contrasts the policies of Scott with those of his predecessor, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. In 2007, Crist allowed for automatic restoration of rights for people with nonviolent felony convictions, among other changes.

Scott’s “more restrictive” rules and “more burdensome” application process caused the number of restoration-of-rights cases to “plummet” by comparison, the report found.

In 2009, under Crist, 24,537 people were approved for rights restoration, whereas in 2011, under Scott, only 52 applications were approved. Florida has averaged fewer than 500 approved applications each year since, the report found.

“Silencing 1.6 million voices is precisely the opposite of what democracy looks like,” Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said in a statement through the Brennan Center. “These are citizens who have paid their debt to society, and have a second chance. They are living and working in communities across the Sunshine State. Just like everyone else, they should be able to have input on decisions that will impact them every day.”

Two efforts are under way to put constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot that would change Florida’s law and automatically restore civil rights for most felons who complete the terms of their sentence. Felons convicted of murder or sexual offenses would still have to go before the clemency board.

Floridians for a Fair Democracy petitioned the Florida Supreme Court this fall to review its proposed constitutional amendment. The court scheduled a hearing for March to hear arguments on the initiative, the News Service of Florida reported this month.

Separately, Lake Worth Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens is also trying to get the Florida Legislature to place a similar constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot. He filed a joint resolution (SJR 74) for lawmakers to consider in the 2017 session, which begins in March. No House version has been filed yet.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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