MIAMI – It turns out Florida’s national top ranking in the number of disenfranchised felons is as much a historic one as it is a political one.
According to a recent report in the Florida Ledger, 1.5 million Floridians can’t vote because they were convicted of a felony. The main reason for such a high number of disenfranchised former felons stems from longstanding wording in the state’s constitution, according to Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
“We have the third-largest state in terms of the prison population and we have a large minority population here compared to places like Iowa or Kentucky,” Simon told the Florida Record. “Given the fact that this whole system was designed after the Civil War to take away the voting rights from as many black people as possible, the size, history and demographics of Florida, I don’t think anybody can be surprised that we lead the nation in the number of people who have lost the right to vote. Florida is the epicenter of felon disenfranchisement for all of those reasons.”
The chances of these numbers decreasing aren’t great. For one reason, the process is difficult; it’s up the governor and two cabinet members to grant executive clemency to someone. With that in mind, former felons often don’t bother trying to get clemency because they think the odds are stacked against them and would rather save themselves the rejection.
“The big problem isn’t feeling comfortable in the process; the big problem is starting the process with any chance of success,” Simon said. "What would make people feel comfortable is that if there was a possibility of success and were getting rights restored at the end of the outcome. The only real solution is to remove the vestiges of the Jim Crow Civil War era and remove the provision from Florida’s constitution.”
The odds many former felons face to get their voting rights back are slim, but not impossible. A governor could make clemency virtually automatic for people who were sentenced to a non-violent felony and complete the terms of their sentence. This occurred most often when Charlie Crist served as governor from 2007 to 2011; approximately 155,000 former felons saw their voting rights restored during that time, according to Simon.
Another way is to put the power in the peoples’ hands. There’s currently a movement to get enough signatures to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, which would then be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court. Either way, it comes down to a long-waited rewriting, or better yet deletion, of some key sections of the Florida Constitution.
“What ultimately we need is just to remove this vestige from the Civil War era that still in constitution mandating lifetime felons disenfranchisement except if you get clemency by the governor and the cabinet,” Simon said. “That’s the ultimate solution.”