Florida Weighs Restoring Voting Rights for Released Felons

Activists are working to undo the voting rights ban for released prisoners in Florida through a November ballot initiative.

Activists are working to undo the voting rights ban for released prisoners in Florida through a November ballot initiative.

By Christopher Zoukis

For 150 years, Florida has had one of the nation’s harshest policies toward restoring the voting rights of released inmates – lifetime disenfranchisement for former felons – but the state’s voters may soon get a chance to reverse that ban, which is also under legal challenge.

A long-standing provision in Florida’s constitution permanently prevents voting by an estimated 1.6 million Floridians, a figure roughly equal to the adult population of Miami-Dade County. Along with Kentucky and Iowa, Florida is the only state currently providing for lifetime disenfranchisement for felons who have completed all parts of their sentences. In the years since 2000, four other states (Delaware, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Maryland) have dropped laws similar to Florida’s.

Activists are working to undo the ban through a ballot initiative, the Voting Restoration Amendment, which would become law if approved by 60% of voters going to the polls in November 2018. The proposal would automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including probation or parole. The measure would not apply to persons convicted of murder or sexual felonies. Those individuals would remain permanently disenfranchised unless both the governor and the state cabinet vote to restore their voting rights.

As state law requires, the Florida Supreme Court held a March 6 hearing to examine whether the wording of the Voting Restoration Amendment complies with the standards ballot initiatives must meet in order to go before the voters. The initiative must be clearly worded and address only a single issue. A decision on whether the initiative is properly drawn is expected soon. Supporters were encouraged that Pam Bondi, the state’s Attorney-General, seen as a potential opponent, took no position on the measure during the court hearing.

In 2011, Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott, shortly after taking office, reversed major parts of a broader clemency process adopted by ex-governor Charlie Crist. As amended by Scott and his cabinet, ex-felons have to wait at least five years after finishing their sentences before they can apply to the governor and his cabinet for restoration of their voting rights. Fewer than 2,500 of those requests have been approved during Scott’s time in office, and a backlog of about 10,500 applications awaits action.

If the state Supreme Court clears the new initiative to win a spot on the 2018 ballot, supporters will also have to muster almost 700,000 more signatures from registered state voters – which could be a lengthy and expensive undertaking. A similar effort in 2016 fell far short.

In other action aimed at overturning the Florida lifetime disenfranchisement of felons, on March 13 seven former felons and the nonpartisan Fair Elections Legal Network filed a class-action lawsuit against Gov. Scott and other state officials, attacking the state’s disenfranchisement law as unconstitutional.

The lawsuit argues the state’s mandate on felon disenfranchisement has a disparate impact on racial minorities. It also alleges that the governor, who has the deciding vote in some voting rights restoration cases, has in some cases rejected requests because the applicants have gotten traffic tickets after completing all terms of their sentences. In other instances, applicants complained of being quizzed about whether they were using alcohol or controlled substances.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.