The Palm Beach Post has done well to inform local residents that one in 10 of their fellow Floridians is barred from the voting booth by a felony conviction. What remains less known is how broken the system for restoring voting rights has become. In Florida, both serious crimes and less serious ones, like altering a lottery card or molesting a stone crab trap, take away your voting rights for life. We are one of a very few states with this provision in our constitution, and we’re the state with by far the greatest number of felons disfranchised — 1.5 million. Our constitution does provide a way to get your voting rights back — executive clemency — but this system is overburdened. As a result of policy changes put in place in 2011, felons now have to wait five to seven years before they can apply to have their rights restored, and that’s after they have completed their sentence, their terms of supervision and any restitution requirements. When they do apply, however, many are going to have to wait a very, very long time.
First, their applications are investigated by the Florida Commission on Offender Review. It takes an investigator between five and 14 hours to conscientiously review each application. But there’s a huge backlog of applications, so many, in fact, that it is apt never to be cleared. There are now about 12,000 applications waiting to be investigated, and even if no new ones are received by the commission, it will be 16 years before the current backlog is cleared, at least at present staffing levels — which already cost taxpayers around $2 million per year.
Once a felon’s application is investigated, it goes on — in theory anyway — to the Clemency Board, which is composed of the Florida Cabinet — the governor, agriculture commissioner, attorney general and chief financial officer. Some cases do not require an individual hearing before the board, but around 11,000 of the currently backlogged cases do. Since the board meets only four times and hears roughly 150 voting rights restoration cases per year, were the backlog to be cleared today, it would be another 73 years before the last applicant got a hearing and a thus chance to get his or her voting rights back.