By Christine Wilson
Early voting in Florida has already begun, but Florida voters are not necessarily enthusiastic about either candidate for Governor. Democratic candidate and former Governor Charlie Crist switched political parties and many Floridians distrust him because of his switch. Voters are also not very fond of Governor Rick Scott because of his stance on various issues. According to six out of ten voters, the phrase “honest and ethical” describes neither Governor Scott nor Crist.
As Floridians decide whether to vote for Governor Scott or former Governor Crist, voters should consider their contrasting policies on allowing felons to restore their voting rights. Between 1995 and 2005, an estimated 200,000 Floridians were disenfranchised and in 2008, the estimated number of Floridians banned from voting was an astonishing 1 million. Nationwide, an estimated 5.85 million felons could not vote in 2010 and 1.5 million were Floridians.
Article VI, Section 4(a) of Florida’s Constitution states that a person convicted of a felony cannot vote or hold office until restoration of their civil rights has occurred. Florida is among only four states where every felony conviction results in a lifetime ban on voting rights. In order to regain the right to vote, a felon must receive a formal declaration of clemency from the Clemency Board, which consists of the Governor and members of the Florida Cabinet. The Clemency Board meets merely four times a year to vote on clemency applications. In 2004, former Governor Jeb Bush and the Cabinet adopted changes to the Rules of Executive Clemency in order to make it easier for felons to have their civil rights restored. The new rules allowed felons, who had been arrest-free for five years, to obtain restoration of civil rights without a hearing, unless they were convicted of certain violent crimes or if they owed restitution. Between 1999 and 2005, the Clemency Board restored the rights of nearly 75,000 Floridians compared to the restoration of rights for only 6,669 individuals between 1994 and 1998.
Florida’s African American communities are disproportionately impacted by felon disenfranchisement because the majority of offenders released are black and male. In 2010, 23 percent of Florida’s black voting age population could not vote. In addition, disenfranchising felons can affect recidivism rates. Former Governor Bush recognized that “without successful re-entry into one’s community, recidivism is likely to occur, to the great detriment of the public safety, Florida’s communities, families, taxpayers and individual ex-offenders.” A task force under Bush identified the loss of civil rights as an issue affecting an individual’s productive return to society. In 2007, former Governor Crist and the Clemency Board approved new rules that allowed automatic restoration of civil rights for many felons. The felons granted automatic restoration were non-violent offenders with no pending criminal charges. Offenders, who had committed severe offenses, but not crimes such as murder or a sex offense, also received restoration without a hearing before the Clemency Board but had to undergo an investigation by the Parole Commission. In 2009, almost 25,000 felons were automatically granted clemency.
In 2011, Governor Scott and the Florida Cabinet reversed course and amended the clemency rules, putting into place essentially the same policies as before Governor Bush. The Clemency Board must now review all felon cases individually and decide on any further action. Additional documentation is also required to receive clemency. Even non-violent offenders must submit an application and accompanying documents to the Clemency Board. Non-violent offenders must wait five years before they are eligible to apply for restoration of their right to vote. The process endured by felons becomes even lengthier because there is a backlog of applicants given Florida’s large population. In 2011, the Clemency Board restored civil rights to merely 78 Floridians.
Proponents of the change argue that the voting restrictions are needed so that felons demonstrate that they can live crime-free. Florida’s Attorney General, Pam Bondi asserted that the restrictions are necessary because “every felony is a serious breach of the bonds that unite our society.” However, Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, claims that legitimate punishment objectives of the justice system should not be confused with fundamental rights as a citizen. According to Mauer, conditioning voting rights upon a person’s behavior after release from prison “almost looks like we are imposing a character test,” which can be harmful in a democracy. The restrictions critics claim make felons feel less connected to their communities and more like second-class citizens. This lack of connectedness can result in felons breaking the law again.
Opponents further argue that Governor Scott and Republican officials promote restrictions on voting as a means to hamper voting for Democrats. Minorities, which are disproportionately affected by the restrictions, tend to vote for Democrats. Given the number of disenfranchised felons in Florida, it is enough to swing elections. It is possible that if disenfranchised felons had the right to vote in the 2000 Presidential Election, Al Gore might have won the Presidency. However, it is unclear as to whether politics is the driving force behind the restrictions. Both former Governors Bush and Crist were Republicans when they implemented policies easing the restrictions on a felon’s ability to regain the right to vote.