TAMPA — A new lawsuit by a group of ex-felons seeks to change the strict Florida law that restricts voting rights for felons. The seven plaintiffs in the class action have sued Governor Rick Scott claiming the law restricting their rights is unconstitutional. The case is filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
This suit was brought by the non-partisan Fair Elections Legal Network on behalf of the seven plaintiffs. It takes aim at the process by which they can seek to regain their voting rights. There is a backlog of more than 10,000 petitions to have voting rights restored. Over 1.6 million people in Florida have lost their voting rights, as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel cited research from The Sentencing Project.
In many states, those convicted of felonies find their voting rights restricted. Florida, however, strips all former felons of voting rights. In 2011, Scott and Republican lawmakers enacted laws requiring felons to wait for five to seven years after their sentences are completed before even applying to have their voting rights reinstated.
The Sentencing Project estimates that across America 6.1 million Americans have lost their voting rights.
“So few people had their rights restored during Gov. Scott’s first term that many others stopped applying," according to the project's website. "Applications for restoration of civil rights under Gov. Scott have dropped by nearly 95% from former Gov. Charlie Crist’s administration.”
Howard Simon is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida. He describes the Florida laws regarding voting rights as a holdover from the era immediately after the Civil War.
“Florida was part of the Confederacy, and when the Civil War was over it was necessary to re-do the Florida constitution," Simon told the Florida Record. "It was necessary to extend full rights of citizenship to all of the former slaves. A whole structure was put in pace to comply with that requirement from the federal government, but also to deprive the black community of their political power.
"The aim was to take the vote away from as many black people as possible. It was called The Black Codes, enacted in the years following the Civil War. The system was put in place in the 1868 constitution. That’s the origin, but that’s not where we are today.”
“Though the system was designed to take political power away from black people, it now turns out that more white people in Florida have been deprived of the right to vote, but black people are disproportionately part of the disenfranchised population,” Simon said.
Simon takes a dim view of the lack of voting rights for Florida felons.
“I think this is a scandalous situation," he said. "Almost 10 percent of the entire adult population of Florida have been permanently barred from being able to partake in our democracy, barred from being able to vote unless they get clemency from the governor and the cabinet, which is something that does not happen that often. The clemency board only meets four times a year, and at the rate at which Florida convicts and incarcerates people, we will never dig ourselves out of this situation. This is the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement in Florida.”
Simon said that Florida is one of a handful of states with such strict voting rights restrictions for felons.
“There are only four states in the country—Virginia, Kentucky, Iowa and Florida—whose constitutions mandate the loss of all voting rights when convicted of any felony, for the rest of a person’s life," he said. "In most places, if you’re convicted of a felony you lose your rights, but your rights are restored when you’ve paid your debt to society and you’ve served all the terms and conditions of your sentence, but in Florida, you lose your rights for the rest of your life, unless they are restored by a vote of the governor and the cabinet.”
The ACLU is trying to end what it sees as an unfair and antiquated system.
“The ACLU has a campaign underway for a proposed constitutional amendment to end the system of lifetime felon disenfranchisement," Simon said. "The proposed language for the constitutional amendment is before the (Florida Supreme Court). They hopefully will come down with an opinion very soon. I’m very optimistic, particularly since the Florida Attorney General did not oppose the language for the amendment.
"If the Supreme Court approves it, then a movement can be initiated," Simon continued. "Almost a million signatures will be required to get this on the ballot, either in 2018 or 2020. The only solution is to bring the Florida constitution into the 21st century and to bring Florida, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, and end this provision that dates from the post-Civil War era."