On Nov. 8, 2016, we saw what will probably become one of the most consequential elections in American history, yet one in 10 voting age Floridians was unable to cast a ballot. That’s because Florida is one of only three states in the country — along with Iowa and Kentucky — where any felony conviction results in a lifetime ban on voting. The result? More than 1.6 million Floridians — equal to the populations of Orlando, Jacksonville, and Miami combined — are prevented from voting for the rest of their lives. This ban affects Democrats and Republicans alike, but disproportionately affects African-Americans; one third of the people facing a lifetime voting ban are African-American, who make up just 16 percent of the statewide population. There’s only one way that people can restore their right to vote — a process called clemency that is costly and takes years.
After finishing out their full sentences, people with felony convictions have to wait five years before filing for clemency. Then they have to submit an application, pay expensive court fees, and make a trip all the way to Tallahassee for their chance at a hearing. But there is a huge backlog, so most applications never even make it that far.
What can we do about this? A group called Floridians for a Fair Democracy is working to collect nearly 800,000 signatures to put a proposal on the Florida ballot to change the outdated, 150-year-old law. In April, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously approved language for the proposal, which would automatically restore the voting rights of people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, excluding those who have been convicted of murder or sexual offenses.