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Erika Wood

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Turning Back the Clock in Florida

Posted: 03/10/11 04:26 PM ET

In less than an hour yesterday, Florida Governor Rick Scott denied the right to vote to hundreds of thousands, maybe as many as a million, Florida citizens, turning back the clock decades and making Florida the most punitive state in the country when it comes to disenfranchising people with criminal convictions in their past.

The Florida constitution denies the right to vote for life to anyone with a felony conviction, unless he is granted clemency by the governor. Essentially it gives the governor, an elected official, the power to decide who will (or won't) be allowed to vote in the next election.

The new clemency rules not only roll back reforms passed by former Governor Charlie Crist, they are far more restrictive than those in place under former Governor Jeb Bush. Under the new rules:

  • People with even nonviolent convictions must wait five years after they complete all terms of their sentence before even being allowed to apply for restoration of civil rights.
  • The clock resets if an individual is arrested for even a misdemeanor during that five-year period, even if no charges are ever filed.
  • Some people must wait seven years before being able to apply, and must appear for a hearing before the clemency board.
  • A provision allowing people to apply for a waiver of the rules, in place under Bush and Crist, was eliminated.
  • Everyone applying for clemency must provide various documents with their application - Bush and Crist had made an exception for those applying for restoration of civil rights.

All of this has to happen just to have the opportunity to ask for one's rights back. Even after the waiting period, the application, and the hearing, anyone could be summarily denied with no reason or explanation. And if that happens, he would have to wait another two years before he can start the process all over again.

Governor Scott is playing three-card Monte with one of our most fundamental rights and steering his state straight back to Jim Crow. Florida's disenfranchisement law is a relic of a discriminatory past, enacted after the Civil War in response to the Fifteenth Amendment, which forced the state to enfranchise African-American men. The voting ban was a direct attempt to weaken the political power of African Americans, and it continues to have its intended effect today. Even prior to yesterday's change, African Americans were excluded from the polls at more than twice the rate of other Florida citizens. Not counting those currently serving a criminal sentence, 13% of the voting-age African-American population in Florida has lost the right to vote. Nearly a quarter of those who are disenfranchised in Florida are African-American.

These numbers are sure to go up under the new rules. The new "arrest-free" waiting period requirement will undoubtedly increase the disproportionate impact on minorities. Government statistics show that nearly 35% of all arrests, and 43% of drug arrests, in Florida in 2009 were African-American, even though African Americans make up just 16% of the state's population.

By shutting the door of democracy in the face of those trying to rejoin the community, Governor Scott ignored broad consensus among law enforcement and criminal justice professionals that allowing people to vote when they are back in the community encourages participation in civic life and helps rebuild ties to the community that motivate law-abiding behavior. The country's premier law enforcement organizations, including the American Correctional Association, the American Probation and Parole Association, the Association of Paroling Authorities International and the National Black Police Association have all passed resolutions supporting automatic restoration of voting rights.

Florida's law is now the most restrictive in the country. Since 1997, 23 states have either restored voting rights or eased the restoration process; nine of these states repealed or amended lifetime disenfranchisement laws. These changes have occurred under both Republican and Democratic governors. There has been a national recognition that harsh criminal disenfranchisement laws are a relic of a discriminatory past, are antithetical to the fundamental principles of our democracy, and do nothing to protect public safety or promote successful reentry.

Several times during the brief public meeting yesterday, Governor Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi referred to voting as "privilege" that should be "earned." But the right to vote is not something to be kept in the Governor's pocket, handed out only as a special treat to his favorite Floridians. To be sure, there once was a time in our country when only the privileged - wealthy, white men - were allowed to vote. But Americans have fought in the streets and in the courts to realize the true promise of our democracy - that all Americans should have a voice in our government. The Governor cannot bury that history under a bunch of bureaucratic hurdles.