Suffrage, once allowed male white property owners, has expanded to all citizens regardless of gender, race, age and class – with one exception: former felons constitute the last class of sane adults without an entitlement to choose who will govern.
Florida law on felon disenfranchisement is unique in that recent changes are contrary to the trend to extend the right to vote; Governor Rick Scott and the Republican controlled Legislature enacted laws that made it more difficult for the restoration of civil rights to a convicted felon who had satisfactorily satisfied court ordered sanctions.
Felon disenfranchisement has a long history.
The right to vote in this country and in colonial days, once an exclusive privilege of male white property owners, has steadily expanded to extend to citizens regardless of gender, race, age and class. Most people now consider the right to vote a fundamental right – with one exception. Those convicted of a felony constitute the last class of sane adult citizens without a protected entitlement to contribute to the choice of who will govern. Some consider the exclusion of felons to be nothing more than a curious residue from past centuries; others would continue restrictions on felon suffrage in various degrees on the theory that, by committing a serious crime, there has been a demonstrated unwillingness to follow society rules, the vote shouldn’t be allowed to a person who, by definition, is not trustworthy. The latter view suggests that it would be irrational to allow a person who breaks the law a role in choosing those who create the laws.
In ancient days, conviction of a serious crime resulted in forfeiture of property to the State and what was considered a “civil death”. The convicted person was deprived of all citizen rights, including suffrage. Since in past years only society elites could vote at all, to the average person the right to vote was not too meaningful. The concept of “civil death” was carried into the new world.
By the late 18th century, the issue of felon disenfranchisement caused concern. The people were not about to consider expanding the right to vote to women or men without property as a universal right. On the other hand, a rehabilitated felon, of a privileged class, especially one whose felonious conduct related from objections to the British rule, could probably be “trusted”.
Over the years, many states enacted laws that relaxed the total disenfranchisement of former felons. As of today, two states (Maine and Vermont) allow felons to vote from prison while other states may permanently ban some felons from voting even after being released from prison, parole, and probation, and having paid all their fines. (Prisoners were permitted to vote in Utah and Massachusetts until recently.) Sixteen states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights to felons upon their release from prison. Four states allow those on probation, but not incarcerated to vote freely. Other states restore voting rights to ex-felons who meet a myriad of factors and conditions, including elapsed time and the nature of the crime. The general trend has been to expand the automatic restoration of the right to vote, with two exceptions, Florida and Iowa. In short, it’s a mixed bag.
Over the past “four score and eighty years”, restoration of right to vote by felons, shifted from a conflict of philosophies to one of racism and, more recently, one of electoral impact.
The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, adopted following the Civil War, guaranteed voting rights to adult citizens without regard to race or past slavery. The right to vote did not extend to those who participated “in rebellion, or other crime”. Many states of the former Confederacy enacted a plethora of laws that were designed to curtail voting by Blacks. Over the years, actions by the courts and Congress have rejected most of these laws. The one significant remaining voter restriction is that of felon disenfranchisement.
Today, the United States disenfranchises more people than any other democracy in the world. An estimated 4.7 million Americans cannot vote because of their criminal records. As of 2008, 2.34 million were presently incarcerated and an estimated 2 million of these disenfranchised citizens were no longer under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
In July, 2012, The Sentencing Project, a well-respected non-profit organization, reported that, as of 2010, 5.85 million people in the United States, 2.5% of the nation’s voting age population, could not vote due to a felony conviction. The racial import of that data is significant; 7.66% of Blacks in the United States could not vote due to a felony conviction. In Florida, 23.32% of African Americans were disenfranchised – the highest percent in the nation.
The statistics for former felons, no longer under judicial supervision, are staggering. The totals for the United States reflect that with a voting age population of 234.6 million, 2.6 million ex-felons (1.1%) remain unable to vote. Florida has a voting age population of approximately 14.8 million and 10.4% cannot vote because they are ex-felons!
Florida has made restoration of the right to vote more difficult to favor the incumbent political party.
Florida has had a long standing procedure for the restoration of civil rights – the right to vote, serve on a jury, apply for a state occupational license and hold public office but not the right to have a gun. Firearm rights are not automatically restored. Prior to 2007, the procedure involved a petition to the Governor and the elected heads of several departments, acting as the Executive Clemency Board. A review was provided by the Parole Commission but mere restoration of civil rights was normally given. There still was a lengthy process but, in 2007, former Governor Charlie Crist, with mostly bi-partisan support, changed the way restoration was done. Civil rights were to be automatically restored to those convicted of non-violent crimes upon completion of supervision. More than 600,000 individuals were affected.
In 2011, however, the rules were changed; automatic restoration was no longer allowed. In the case of conviction of non-violent minor felonies, applicants do not require them to attend a hearing but they will be eligible to apply after they have “been crime- and arrest-free for a period of five years after completion of their sentences”. Any arrest, even if it does not lead to a conviction of any crime, starts the clock anew! At the time of the rule change, over 60,000 former felons were awaiting the restoration of the right to vote. That number has now increased nearly 500%.
The changes in the Florida rules were part of an overall scheme to restrict minority voting in the state, in an attempt to limit voting by those believed to be more likely to vote for the re-election of the president. This was candidly acknowledged to be the case by a former Republican Party chairman, Jim Greer. While the overall plan was not successful, and indeed may have backfired, the issue of voting right restoration needs to be addressed.
Studies have conclusively shown that quick and automatic restoration reduces recidivism and allows the re-entry of former felons into society.
There is no rational excuse to delay or deny restoration of civil rights.