Try to imagine the uproar if every single active registered voter in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties were turned away at the polls. Yet that’s the equivalent effect of Florida’s hardline policy against voting by ex-felons, which has disenfranchised almost 1.6 million people in the state. Civil rights activists have been working diligently to give Florida voters the opportunity to overturn this punitive policy, but it’s a long, hard — and expensive — slog. It’s much easier for a state panel to clear the way to right this historical wrong. Florida’s policy forces ex-felons who want to regain their right to vote to wait at least five years after they have completed their sentences, then apply to have their rights restored by the governor and the Cabinet. They meet just four times a year as the Board of Executive Clemency to consider applications on a case-by-case basis, normally reviewing fewer than 100 cases per meeting. The board has a waiting list more than 20,000 people long.
Those who would defend this policy might not be aware that Florida is an outlier. Only two other states, Iowa and Kentucky, now bar former felons from voting. Nationwide, 5.8 million ex-felons are disenfranchised, so Florida alone accounts for more than a quarter of the total.
Florida’s policy dates back to the years after the Civil War, when it was enacted to push back against a federal law that forced states to grant blacks the right to vote. Even today, a century and a half later, Florida’s policy bars more than a fifth of the state’s African-American voting-age population from casting ballots.