Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Florida

October 6, 2016

Current Felony Disenfranchisement Laws

An estimated 1.7 million Florida citizens, or 10.43% of the state’s voting-age population, are disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction.

In March 2011, the Florida Clemency Board turned back the clock on voting rights restoration efforts by passing a plan that eliminated the 2007 reforms and put up additional barriers for people seeking to have their voting rights restored.

The Brennan Center, along with other national civil rights organizations, submitted a letter to the Florida Clemency Board that expressed strong opposition to the plan, which was proposed by Attorney General Pam Bondi in February 2011. The letter urged Governor Scott and his cabinet to maintain the 2007 clemency rules. The American Probation and Parole Association also submitted a letter that encouraged the Florida Clemency Board to continue to restore voting rights to Floridians who have completed their criminal sentences according to the current clemency rules. The new rules adhere to the  Florida constitution, which denies the right to vote for life to anyone with a felony conviction, unless individual clemency is granted by the governor. Essentially, the new rules give the governor, an elected official, the power to decide who will (or won't) be allowed to vote in the next election.

The current clemency rules not only eliminate reforms passed by former Governor Charlie Crist, but they are also far more restrictive than the rules that had been in place under former Governor Jeb Bush. According to the new clemency 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.

Litigation and administrative advocacy

In 2005, representing more than 613,000 people who had fully served their sentences on felony convictions but who were still barred from the polls in Florida, the Brennan Center challenged that state’s permanent disenfranchisement provision in Johnson v. Bush. Although that challenge failed in federal court, the case was an important vehicle for pressuring Florida policymakers to stop illegal purges of the voter rolls and to restore the right to vote. The Center drew upon documents discovered during the course of the litigation to prevent the state from using a flawed list of suspected “felons” as the basis for a purge of eligible voters before the November 2004 election.

Public education efforts

Record materials from Johnson v. Bush contained invaluable information on the scope and harms of permanent felony disenfranchisement in Florida. Based in part on that information, we created a fact sheet that documents racial bias in Florida’s criminal justice system and explains how the voting ban imports this bias into the electoral system. An additional fact sheet presents the racist origins of felony disenfranchisement in post-Civil War Florida. Our state partners use these materials to advance their advocacy of voting rights.