Changes under Republican Gov. Rick Scott are making it more difficult for Florida’s former felons to get their voting rights restored, which critics say has suppressed the minority vote and hurt Democratic candidates. As one of his first actions after taking office in 2011, Scott, as chairman of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, undid automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent ex-offenders that previous Gov. Charlie Crist helped adopt in 2007. Since then, the number of former felons who have had their voting rights restored has slowed to a trickle, even compared with the year before Crist and the clemency board helped make the process easier.
Civil liberties activists say Florida’s rights restoration rules are the most restrictive in the nation and have the effect, if not the intent, of suppressing the minority vote. A disproportionate number of black Floridians are convicted felons – 16.5 percent of Floridians are black, yet black inmates make up 31.5 percent of the state’s prison population – meaning a higher percentage of African-Americans don’t have the right to vote after completing their sentences. And black voters tend to support Democrats. Exit polls show only one in 10 supported Scott in the 2010 election.
Desmond Meade is among the former felons who cannot vote in Florida because their civil rights haven’t been restored although they’ve completed their sentences, often many years ago.
“It weakens the political voice in the African-American community,” said Meade, who is black. “Therefore, the plight of African-Americans becomes basically a political non-factor.”
That’s exactly how it was planned, say some critics who believe the Republican effort to make voting rights restoration more difficult is politically motivated.
“This is one of the few government programs that has worked precisely as it was designed, namely to try to suppress the vote of as many African-Americans as possible,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “It was designed that way in 1868, and it continues to have that effect in 2013.”
In 2011, 78 ex-felons had their right to vote restored. That number rose to 342 last year. That compares with more than 14,000 in 2006, Gov. Jeb Bush’s last year in office, and more than 85,000 in 2008, the first full year after the clemency board followed Crist’s lead and voted to allow virtually automatic rights restoration for nonviolent former felons.
In the midst of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, Florida adopted a new constitution with a provision prohibiting former felons from voting or holding public office unless their civil rights were restored.
In most states, some or all felons now get back their right to vote, although not necessarily other rights such as gun ownership, upon finishing their sentences. Some states, though, have waiting periods as well as application and approval requirements. Some deny rights restoration for more serious crimes. In Maryland and Vermont, convicts never lose their voting rights and can cast absentee ballots from prison.
Florida is the largest of four states that permanently deny felons the right to vote unless restored by the governor or a clemency board. The others are Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa.