Florida, the scene of infamous election-day chaos and massive voter purges during the 2000 presidential election, took an important step towards resolving its democratic crisis yesterday. With the stroke of a pen, Governor Charlie Crist issued new Rules of Executive Clemency that restore voting rights to potentially hundreds of thousands of Florida citizens who had been permanently disenfranchised as the result of a felony conviction.
Governor Crist's bold action was just the latest in a national movement that has gained significant momentum in the past year. Across the country, states are moving to reinvigorate our democracy by removing the last of the Jim Crow-era barriers to the ballot box--the laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions, even after they have been released from prison and are living, working, paying taxes, and raising families in our communities.
Florida's voting ban was one of the harshest in the nation, disenfranchising more people than any other state. Over 950,000 Floridians, including one in three African-American men, remained permanently disenfranchised even after they had served their entire sentence. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law challenged the state's voting practices in a federal lawsuit--Johnson v. Bush, which helped focus national attention on Florida's criminal disenfranchisement scheme.
Florida's old clemency rules required everyone with a felony conviction who wanted to vote to apply individually to the Governor and the Clemency Board. The burdensome process took years, and even then there was no guarantee that one's rights would be restored. In fact, former Governor Jeb Bush denied over 200,000 applications during his tenure.
Unlike his predecessor, Crist seems to understand that increasing access to the polls only strengthens our democracy. But even with the new rules, Florida's felony disenfranchisement laws lag far behind most of the country. Large numbers of would-be voters are still required to navigate a slow, complicated, and expensive bureaucratic process and be subject to the whim of the Clemency Board. The new rules also condition the right to vote on an applicant's ability to pay restitution. And there is no easy way for people who finished their sentence long ago to have their rights restored.
Crist's actions come just one week after legislators in Maryland took a better route to reforming their complicated felony disenfranchisement scheme. Last week the Maryland General Assembly passed a simple bill that would take voting rights away from those convicted of only the most serious crimes, and will streamline the process by which people get their voting rights restored once they have served their sentence. The bill now awaits Governor Martin O'Malley's signature.
Maryland law disenfranchises anyone who has been convicted of an "infamous crime" - an archaic legal term that is as hard to apply as it is to understand. Until the current bill is signed into law, Maryland was one of only six states that took voting rights away from those convicted of misdemeanors, and one of only two states in which someone could lose the right to vote even if he never spent a single night in jail. A complicated series of qualifications and waiting periods created needless barriers to people regaining their voting rights even after they had served their entire sentence. All this will be simplified by the Assembly bill.
While it would be better if Florida's law were more like Maryland's, it's a step in the right direction. Five years ago, Maryland changed its law, from a lifetime ban to the complicated system it now has in place. But the new law proved difficult to understand and administer, and the frustration with it helped build momentum for this year's change. No doubt as the Florida Executive Clemency board applies its complicated rules, it too will begin to see the wisdom of a simple and fair restoration process.
But the larger point remains: in the 2000 election, both Florida and Maryland had lifetime felon voting bans. In the 2008 election, neither will. Lawmakers are truly beginning to understand the fundamental unfairness of banning persons with criminal convictions from the ballot box. And it is not just lawmakers that have come to this understanding. The American public is overwhelmingly in favor of welcoming voters back into the political process. A 2002 Harris Interactive poll found that eighty percent of Americans favor returning voting rights to citizens who have completed their sentences.
This public support was confirmed this year in Rhode Island. For the first time in history, voters went to the polls on Election Day and cast a vote in favor of reenfranchsing persons with criminal convictions. The voters of Rhode Island amended their state constitution to restore the right to vote to their fellow citizens as soon as they are released from prison. A coaltion of Democrats, Republicans, law enforcement officials, religious organizations, labor unions, affected communities and civil rights and advocacy groups banded together to place the measure on the ballot to let the people decide who should participate in voting. And they chose to invite people who had paid their debt back onto the voter rolls.
In the last ten years, seventeen states have reformed their laws or policies to reduce barriers to voting for people with criminal convictions. Dozens of states, including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, New York, and Washington are currently considering new measures to bring more voters back to the polls. The time has come for Kentucky and Virginia, the only states that continue to permanently ban all people with felony convictions from voting, to join Florida and the rest of the country by bringing people into the democratic process, not shutting them out.