Florida leads the nation by a wide margin in the number of felons who have served their sentences but cannot vote. One of only 11 states in the U.S. that does not automatically return civil rights to former inmates, Florida had not restored the rights of 1.3 million former inmates as of 2010, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that favors alternatives to incarceration. The next closest state was Virginia at 351,943. A policy introduced by Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi makes most former convicts wait years before they can apply to restore their rights, which include serving on a jury and holding public office. Critics say the policy disproportionately affects minorities — 60 percent of Florida’s prison population — and cost thousands the ability to vote in 2012. But Scott and Bondi say felons must demonstrate a crime-free life after prison before regaining their civil rights.
After the 2000 election, the restored felon voting rights became an issue. So former Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist responded to the growing concern by increasing restorations.
Bush restored rights to 72,000 former convicts during his last five years in office, ending in 2006. His successor, Crist, changed state policy, making restoration easier for people convicted of non-violent crimes, and allowed 159,000 to regain their rights between 2007 and 2010.
After Scott reversed that policy, 420 people regained their rights in 2011 and 2012. This year, 94 people have done so.
Now, most former convicts wait five years after they finish their sentences, parole and probation before they can apply. In the case of violent felonies, the wait is seven years.
After that wait, they apply to the Clemency Board, which includes Scott, Bondi and fellow Cabinet members Jeff Atwater, Florida CFO, and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam. Given a backlog of thousands of former inmates, restoration could take several years after the application is filed.
Critics of the system say putting a person’s right to vote in the hands of partisan politicians is dangerous.