A number of election officials across Alabama remain confused about the impacts of a sweeping new felon disenfranchisement law, according to interviews this week with registrars representing 12 counties. The new law, which took effect in August, clarified which felons are allowed to vote and what steps they need to take to restore that right. But four registrars told AL.com this week that they were not entirely clear about the intricacies of the law and how it applies to their duties. And multiple nonprofits and advocates told AL.com last month that they were working with people who were being wrongly barred from regaining the right to vote because the law is not being properly and consistently followed.
Try to imagine the uproar if every single active registered voter in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties were turned away at the polls. Yet that’s the equivalent effect of Florida’s hardline policy against voting by ex-felons, which has disenfranchised almost 1.6 million people in the state. Civil rights activists have been working diligently to give Florida voters the opportunity to overturn this punitive policy, but it’s a long, hard — and expensive — slog. It’s much easier for a state panel to clear the way to right this historical wrong. Florida’s policy forces ex-felons who want to regain their right to vote to wait at least five years after they have completed their sentences, then apply to have their rights restored by the governor and the Cabinet. They meet just four times a year as the Board of Executive Clemency to consider applications on a case-by-case basis, normally reviewing fewer than 100 cases per meeting. The board has a waiting list more than 20,000 people long.
Roy Harness is a U.S. Army and a National Guard veteran, a recovered drug addict and a Jackson State University student studying for his master’s degree in social work. He has lived through the stress of military life, the depressing depths of addiction, which led to years of homelessness and helplessness—and ultimately a stint in prison for forging a check. “I owed the drug dealer a lot of money. That’s what caused me to write the check,” Harness told the Jackson Free Press. The McComb native says he started using drugs to numb his fear during his military service as well as deal with the pain of his service-related injuries. He went to prison for the forgery in 1986. Harness knew before he was released in 1988 that he had lost his right to vote—he remembers talking about it while he was in prison. “You hear about all this in jail,” he said. “… When I was up in jail, they were letting people out who were able to go vote.”
Alabama has clarified its voting rights policy in response to a report by AL.com. Secretary of State John Merrill said via email Thursday that a class of felons featured in a Wednesday AL.com story are in fact eligible to register to vote, despite the fact that a number of them said they had recently applied for and been denied that right. Felons like Randi Lynn Williams are in fact eligible to immediately regain their voting rights, according to Merrill. Williams, a 38-year-old Dothan woman who was convicted of fraudulent use of a credit card in 2011, would not have lost the right to vote under a new state law that went into effect in August.
Next year, Florida voters may finally right a wrong first perpetrated 150 years ago by racist state legislators who were desperate to deny equality to African Americans. Voters may enfranchise almost 1.6 million fellow Floridians; or they may retain an approach that long-dead white supremacists conceived to disenfranchise blacks, an approach that is still spectacularly successful at diluting their political power. This particular historical evil began after the Civil War, when white-supremacist legislatures were resisting efforts to treat blacks as fellow humans with equal rights and dignity. Though attempts to block the 14th Amendment failed, and though the Reconstruction Act of 1867 forced Florida to add an article to its state constitution granting suffrage to all men, creative racists kept many blacks from the ballot box with educational requirements and a lifetime voting ban for convicted felons, knowing blacks had been and would be abused by the criminal-justice system.
Florida: Leaders consider proposed Florida Constitution amendment to let more felons vote | Naples Daily News
Members of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission have taken initial steps toward loosening restrictions on felon voting rights. Under a proposed amendment, offenders who have served their sentences, including prison time, parole and probation, would have their voting rights automatically restored. The revision would apply only to felons who have committed nonviolent and nonsexual crimes. Proposed amendments must be approved by 22 commissioners to be placed on the 2018 ballot. Measures then must receive 60 percent of the vote to pass.
Nearly 1.7 million Florida citizens are permanently disenfranchised from voting in state and federal elections because of being former felons. Disenfranchisement has climbed from 2.6 percent of the state’s adult citizens in 1980, to 10.4% today, the highest rate in the nation, including one in five adult African Americans.[i] A pending Voting Restoration Amendment would automatically restore the right of all Florida’s former felons to vote after they complete parole and probation, except for those convicted of murder or felony sexual offences. If approximately 680,000 signatures are gathered by December 31, 2017, the Amendment will be included on Florida’s November 2018 ballot to be decided by Florida citizens.
The American Civil Liberties Union launched a nationwide campaign Sunday on voting rights, with an emphasis in Arizona on restoring the voting rights of people convicted of a felony crime. The Let People Vote campaign is working with community members to help pass a bill in the Arizona Legislature to restore the voting rights of citizens with felony convictions upon the completion of their sentence. Alessandra Soler, ACLU Arizona executive director, said the organization aims to take back the vote in direct response to the Trump administration’s investigation of voter fraud, a problem she said “doesn’t exist.”
Mississippi’s constitution bars its citizens from voting ever again after being convicted of certain felonies. Now a legal group wants the federal courts to remove what it calls an illegal vestige of white supremacy by striking down most of these restrictions. Attorney Rob McDuff, who filed suit Thursday in Jackson, estimates that more than 50,000 Mississippians have been disqualified from voting since 1994 due to these convictions. About 60 percent are African-American, in a state whose population is 37 percent black. The suit describes the disenfranchising crimes as “an integral part of the overall effort to prevent African-Americans in Mississippi from voting. Once you’ve paid your debt to society, I believe you should be allowed to participate again,” said plaintiff Kamal Karriem, a 58-year-old former Columbus city councilman who pleaded guilty to embezzlement in 2005 after being charged with stealing a city cellphone. “I don’t think it should be held against you for the rest of your life.”
Former state Senate Democratic leaders Arthenia Joyner and Chris Smith have filed a measure with the Constitution Revision Commission that would restore voting rights to felons who have served their time and completed any other post-prison requirements. Joyner, a Tampa lawyer, and Smith, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, are members of the commission, which can place state constitutional amendments directly on the 2018 general-election ballot. Under the proposal, voting rights for convicted felons would be restored “upon completion of all terms of a sentence including parole and probation.” Felons convicted of murder or a sexual offense would be excluded from the automatic voter restoration under the amendment.