Fla. strips felons' vote at higher rate than other states
NAPLES, Fla. — Florida strips felons of their right to vote at a higher rate than any other state, barring more than 10% of its overall adult population — including 21.5% of African-Americans — from the polls, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project.
According to numerous historians, voting rights advocates and law groups, that racial disparity is no coincidence.
One report, released by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, details how Florida’s felon voting rights laws, which disenfranchise 1.7 million felons, are a vestige of the Jim Crow era.
When state leaders came together in 1865 to write the state’s constitution following the Civil War, Florida limited voting rights to “free white males,” the report states. In response to enduring racial discrimination in the South, the U.S. Congress passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, forcing states to extend the rights of citizenship to former slaves.
“That was frightening to the white Confederacy,” said Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida.
Simon has been dedicated to felon voting law reform for decades, and his organization is among the civil rights groups behind a ballot initiative that would restore civil rights to non-violent and non-sexual offenders.
At the time of Florida’s constitutional convention, Simon said, some regions of the state had more freed slaves than white people, thus giving blacks stronger representation.
State lawmakers reacted to the congressional mandates by implementing “Black Codes” — laws intended to increase the severity of punishment for crimes likely to be committed by freed slaves, such as stealing cotton.
Under these laws, blacks were often arrested for violations such as loitering and vagrancy, said Joe Richardson, associate professor in the African-American Studies department at the University of Maryland. Once in prison, blacks were entered into a convict leasing system where the state would rent them to corporations for labor purposes.
“If you think about it from the standpoint of the government and slave owners, it was the perfect law,” Richardson said. “It ensured African-Americans were kept in a perpetual form of slavery.”
It also kept blacks from the polls.
But state legislators didn’t stop there. While writing Florida’s 1868 constitution, lawmakers adopted Article XIV, which mandated education requirements for voters; however, the requirements only applied to first-time voters. This disproportionately affected blacks, who had been previously barred from the polls.
The article also stripped voting rights from felons, who, as a result of the Black Codes, were disproportionately African-American.
Fast forward a century and a half later, and Florida’s constitution still bars felons from voting.
Jacksonville resident Kelvin Smith is an African-American who, due to a felony conviction, has not been allowed to vote in the last two presidential elections.
Smith served a five-year prison sentence for armed robbery after breaking into a car to fund his alcohol addiction. He said it was the worst five five years of his life.
“I've paid my debt to society,” he said. "But in a sense (prison) has made me a better person. I don't take anything for granted anymore," especially his civil rights.
Not being able to vote, he said, "makes me feel like I’m not American."
Gov. Rick Scott rewrote the rules surrounding clemency after taking office in 2011, making Florida the toughest state in the country for felons to regain their voting rights.
Florida is the only state where felons must wait an additional five to seven years after completing their sentence, which includes parole and probation, before they’re eligible to apply to have their rights restored.
Offenders must be crime-free during those years, and the application is tedious. Felons must obtain certified copies of the charging document, judgment and sentence for each felony conviction, which can be extremely difficult for people whose crimes were committed decades ago.
Once submitted, the application takes several years to process. Offenders who have committed more-serious crimes are required to travel to Tallahassee for a hearing before the clemency board. If rejected, applicants must wait two years to reapply.
“If you’re not willing to follow the law, then you can’t have the right to make the law for everyone else,” said Roger Clegg, the president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Virginia. “It doesn’t make sense to have automatic restoration of rights, because most people who walk out of prison are going to walk back in anyways.”
Around one-fourth of Florida's inmates return to prison within three years of release, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
Although some Floridians have argued automatic restoration of rights would disproportionately benefit Democrats, the ACLU's ballot initiative has received widespread bipartisan support.
Proponents on both sides of the political divide argue the issue is a matter of giving second chances to those who've paid their dues — not a partisan tug-of-war.
Florida's politically divided Supreme Court unanimously approved the ballot's language in April. Advocates have until Feb. 1 to collect 766,200 signatures — 8% of voter turnout from the last presidential election — for the referendum to be placed on the 2018 ballot. The petition, spearheaded by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, has received more than 1.1 million signatures, of which more than 730,000 have been verified.
If activists come up short, a separate effort to put the restoration of felon voting rights on the ballot is underway via the Constitution Revision Commission. The commission meets every 20 years to gather public input and weigh proposed amendments.
If either group succeeds, the ballot measure would require 60% approval to become law.
The initiative wouldn’t be the first time civil rights organizations have attempted to amend the law in favor of felon voting rights. In 2002, NYU’s Brennan Center, along with Florida attorneys, sued the state on behalf of 600,000 disenfranchised felons in Florida. The suit, Johnson v. Bush, argued the voting ban was in violation of the 14th and 15th amendments and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the case never went to trial.
“The tragedy of that case is that the historical evidence for how this was a law designed with racial intent never got its day in court,” the ACLU's Simon said.
Reflecting on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Simon, 74, noted the efforts across the South to pass the Voting Rights Act in the early 1960s. It’s what inspired him to do the work he continues today.
“It’s 2018, and we are now confronting the Confederate history of Florida,” he said. “This is an effort to drag Florida out of the Jim Crow era. This is the unfinished business of the civil rights movement."
Follow Annika Hammerschlag on Twitter: @a_hammerschlag