Leonard “Roscoe” Newton has been in and out of Florida’s prisons since before he could vote, starting with a youthful conviction for burglary. He’s been a free man for six years now with an important exception: he still can’t vote. Newton, who is African American, is among nearly 1.5 million former felons who have been stripped of their right to vote in a state with a history of deciding U.S. presidential elections, sometimes by razor-thin margins of just a few hundred votes. Felons have been disenfranchised in Florida since 1868, although they can seek clemency to restore their voting rights. Since 2011, however, when Republican state leaders toughened the restrictions on felon voting rights, just 2,339 ex-felons have had that right restored, the lowest annual numbers in nearly two decades, according to state data reviewed by Reuters. That compares with more than 155,000 in the prior four years under reforms introduced by Governor Rick Scott’s predecessor, moderate Republican governor Charlie Crist, the data shows. Crist, who was governor from 2007 to 2011, made it much easier to restore ex-felons’ voting rights.
“When I tried to be an effective member of the community, I saw that I was voiceless,” said Newton, whose expectations of getting his rights restored were dashed when the rules changed under a new administration. “I’m 45, and I have never voted.”
The dramatic slowdown has stoked a racially charged debate over whether political bias taints the process of restoring felon voting rights in the largest battleground state in the Nov. 8 presidential election. Florida’s toughened ban means racial minorities are disproportionately excluded from voting because of higher incarceration rates, data shows. Black voters tend to favor Democrats.
“Republicans oppose the felon vote change because they are concerned about the political implications,” said Darryl Paulson, a conservative Republican voting rights expert who sees wide restoration of voting rights as “a huge political advantage for the Democratic Party.” Paulson says non-violent ex-felons should have the right to vote.