(Part two of two)
In the first part of this article, I focused on the origins of the felon vote in Florida and the consequences it creates for both those convicted of a felony and on the Florida taxpayers. This part will focus on the various options concerning the felon vote.
We know that over a quarter of all voters who have lost the franchise due to a felony conviction reside in Florida. We know that over 10 percent of the voting age population in Florida are denied the right to vote due to a felony conviction. In the United States, 1.77 percent of whites are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction compared to 7.66 percent of blacks. Florida has disenfranchised 23 percent of its black citizens because of a felony. This has led the Sentencing Project to declare that “in 2010, more people are disenfranchised in Florida than in any other state and Florida’s disenfranchisement rate remains highest among the 50 states.”
Critics argue that there is a process to seek the restoration of your voting rights. True, but the process is terrible, unfair and slow. The Florida cabinet and governor make up the Clemency Board which meets four times a year. Currently, 1.7 million Floridians have lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction.
At the September 2016 meeting of the Clemency Board, 48 petitions were considered and 23 individuals had their civil rights restored. At this rate, it will take decades to work through the backlog of 12,000 appeals on file. This excludes the hundreds of thousands who have not filed for restoration of their rights because the process is too complicated, expensive and time-consuming.
Florida requires non-violent felons to wait five years after probation and parole to file an appeal. Violent felons must wait seven years. In addition to the waiting period, it then takes an average of nine more years before your case will be heard. This means that after you have paid your debt to society for your crime, you must wait between 14-16 years before your case will be heard. That strikes me as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Florida, Iowa and Kentucky are the three states that impose a lifetime ban on felon voting unless you seek restoration. Between 2011-2015, 93 percent of appeals in Iowa were approved and 86 percent in Kentucky. In Florida, only 8 percent were approved.
In Florida, the success of voter restoration depends on who is the governor. Gov. Crist and his cabinet modified the appeals process and, as a result, 155,000 felons had their civil rights restored in four years. Gov. Scott reversed Crist’s policy and in the first six years of his administration only 2,339 received the restoration of their rights. During Gov. Bush’s eight years in office, 77,000 had their rights restored.
Critics point out that these individuals committed a felony and have forfeited their right to vote. But, is this a lifetime ban? Almost all states restore voting rights after the completion of probation and parole.
It is also apparent that most felonies are non-violent. One-third of all arrests in Florida are drug related and only a quarter of felons serve time in prison. They are not threats to society.
Individuals in Florida have been convicted of felonies for the following: driving with a suspended license, disturbing eggs of nesting turtles, burning a fire in public, walking through a posted construction site, catching lobsters with tails that are too short, and lunching helium balloons into the air. These are not what most people would consider to be violent crimes.
Another objection, although often unstated, is political. Democrats have pushed for the felon vote because they believe they will benefit. For the same reason, Republicans have opposed easing felon vote restoration. There is some truth to this concern, but do we make policy because it is justified, or do we make it only if it benefits our party?
Studies have shown that ex-felons register as Democrats over Republican by a five-to-one margin. Studies have also shown that only about one-third of ex-felons registered to vote and only one in five voted. Still, in a close election, this may be the margin of difference.
Florida’s current felon vote policy is so far out of the mainstream that it stands out in comparison to other states. When 27 percent of all disenfranchised felon voters reside in Florida, you know our policy is extreme.
Restoring civil rights in Florida will apply only to non-violent felons according to a proposed constitutional amendment that may appear on the 2018 ballot. The “Voter Restoration Amendment” currently under review by the Florida Supreme Court, exempts violent felons from having their civil rights restored unless they appeal to the Clemency Board.
Restoration works and is widely supported in the criminal justice community. A study by the Florida Parole Commission found that recidivism rates for ex-felons who had their civil rights restored was 11 percent, compared to 33 percent for those who did not have their rights restored. That is one reason the National Association of Chiefs of Police supports restoration of civil rights to ex-felons.
As a society, we claim to value redemption and forgiveness. Jesus did not tell the thief on the adjoining cross to wait 14 to 16 years to seek forgiveness. “This day, you shall enter heaven.”
Finally, restoration is the right thing to do. It is right because it lowers recidivism and saves taxpayer dollars on unnecessary prisons. It is right because it reintegrated individuals into society and gives them a second chance to be productive citizens.
Nothing is more sacred in American society than the right to vote. We should be seeking to expand this right instead of denying that right to non-violent felons who often made a youthful mistake that they are now forced to pay a lifetime penalty.
It is past time to do the right thing.
Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.