Lessons from the Classroom (Student Edition): Learning About the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative

For our final project in our Policy Development and Administration class, we were tasked with analyzing a policy. Having recently learned about Florida’s Amendment 4, Voting Rights Restoration for Felons from a different group’s presentation, we both decided this could be an interesting and suitable topic for our final project. Neither of us expected what we would find, nor that we would become this passionate about a topic that we previously knew so little about.

We were aware that the current voter rights in Florida were one of the most punitive in the entire nation. In 38 states, felons’ voting rights are automatically restored after incarceration or after completion of their sentence. In two states, this civil right is never lost at all. Unfortunately, in Florida felons lose their voting rights permanently, unless they are pardoned by the executive clemency board. Under Governor Rick Scott, this has been taken a step further than most states, requiring an additional 5 -to-7 year minimum of being crime free before ex-felons can even apply to have your civil rights restored. Once they have completed these requirements and have waited for a clemency hearing, the burden of proof is on them to convince the panel that they have turned their lives around and deserve their civil rights again.

Here’s the problem. There are currently no regulations or standards for the reinstatement of these rights. This clemency decision lies solely with Governor Rick Scott despite the fact that there are three other people on the board – Attorney General Pam Bondi, Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services Adam H. Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis- who, interestingly enough, are all members of the Republican party. It comes as no surprise that this was found unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, ruled in early February that the disenfranchisement of felons who have served their time is “nonsensical” and a violation of the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Walker noted that “elected partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines, or standards.” He also cited one clemency hearing where Scott announced that the panel “can do whatever we want” as evidence of its arbitrary nature. Perhaps, this has something to do with the fact that Governor Scott has only approved 8% of Civil Rights Restoration cases that get a hearing.

Consider this with the fact that there are only four Clemency hearings a year, with less than 100 cases heard at each, and there are over 20,000 people already in the clemency pipeline. At a rate like this, it would take at least 50 years to get through today’s list. If all eligible felons, that’s 1.5 million Floridians, were to apply for restoration it would take 3,750 years to get through that list. That’s not taking into consideration that the number of eligible felons is continually growing. With these wait times and low probability of of restoration, it’s unsurprising that most people feel that it is impossible to regain their voting rights and don’t even bother.

Additionally, we cannot talk about these disenfranchising practices without discussing the racial undertones. Commonly cited as a deterrence measure, the threat of losing your voting rights was designed to deter people from committing any felonies. However, if you look at the history of the policy and at the disproportionate number of Blacks that are affected by it, you begin to wonder what the true intentions were. These laws were created in 1867, right after the Civil War when over 15,000 of Florida’s 25,000 eligible voters were black. A legislative package designed to cope with this emergent group of voters that whites refused to accept was promptly passed.

In the United States as a whole, 1.77% of whites and 7.66% of blacks are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. In Florida, 10% of the voting age population is disenfranchised, but 23% — or almost one out of four black voters — is disenfranchised. It is estimated by the Brennan Center for Justice that there are 1.5 million Floridians who are currently ineligible to vote due to past felony convictions.

If we refer to the topic of deterrence, it is clear from research that this policy does not meet those goals. In fact, it may have the exact opposite effect. When people are disenfranchised, made to feel like they are no longer wanted or accepted into in the community, and their opportunities for reintegration are limited or taken away, then they will in fact have a higher rate of recidivism. In the interest of public safety it would be wise to restore rights and take additional measure to ensure reintegration.

It’s time for Florida to review ex-felon voting laws and practices. We have the highest disenfranchising rates in the nation and its time that fair and constitutional practice are put into place. It is especially critical in a state that holds so much weight in national elections. Fortunately, there will be an opportunity for change. On November 6th, 2018, Floridians will have the opportunity to elect new senators, congressmen/women, and a new governor, in addition to voting on amendment 4- Voting Rights Restoration for Felons.

Remember, the voter registration deadlines are July 30th for the Primary Election and October 9th for the General Election.


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Maria Rodriguez is a graduate student in the Public Administration program. She plans to graduate next summer and then go to law school and focus on social justice issues.

 

 

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Kristina Le Blanc is a graduate student in the Dual Criminology and Public Administration Program. She is receiving an Intelligence Certificate and an Emergency Management and Homeland Security Certificate. Her goal is to work for the federal government upon graduation.

 


The featured image belongs to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

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