Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Florida

A summary of current felony disenfranchisement policies and legislative advocacy in Florida.

November 7, 2018

On November 6, 2018 Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment automatically restoring the right to vote to 1.4 million individuals with felony convictions in their past. The amendment restores the right to vote for people with felony convictions, except individuals convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, once they have completed the terms of their sentence, including probation and parole.

Florida was one of four states whose constitution permanently disenfranchised citizens with past felony convictions and granted the governor the authority to restore voting rights. The others are Kentucky and Iowa, where lifetime bars remain in place, and Virginia, where the governor has promised to restore voting rights on a rolling basis.

In Florida, the rights restoration process was determined by clemency rules set by the state’s governor—a process that will now apply only to people with murder and felony sexual offense convictions. Gov. Rick Scott's clemency rules, issued in 2011, were the most restrictive in several administrations. By December 2015, nearly five years after taking office, Gov. Scott’s administration had restored voting rights to fewer than 2,000 Floridians statewide, while over 20,000 applications remained pending. Meanwhile, in the period between 2010 and 2016, the disenfranchised population Floridians grew by nearly 150,000 to a staggering estimated total of 1,686,000.

On February 1, 2018 a federal district court judge in Tallahassee ruled that the “unfettered discretion that the [Florida] Clemency Board possesses” violates both the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The case – Hand v. Scott – is a class action lawsuit filed last March by the Fair Elections Legal Network. A copy of the opinion can be found here. The case was on appeal awaiting a ruling by the Eleventh Circuit when Amendment 4 passed.

More comprehensive information, including application forms, can be found on this section of the Florida Commission on Offender Review website.

Current Rights Restoration Process

Florida was an outlier in denying voting rights, with one of the most punitive disenfranchisement policies in the country. Florida was one of four states whose constitution permanently disenfranchises citizens with past felony convictions and grants the governor the authority to restore voting rights. The others are Kentucky and Iowa, where lifetime bars are in place, and Virginia, where the governor has promised to restore voting rights on a rolling basis. In Florida, the rights restoration process was determined by clemency rules set by the state’s governor. 

The Gov. Rick Scott's clemency rules, issued in 2011, were the most restrictive in several administrations. By December 2015, nearly five years after taking office, Gov. Scott’s administration had restored voting rights to fewer than 2,000 Floridians statewide, while over 20,000 applications remained pending. Meanwhile, in the period between 2010 and 2016, the disenfranchised population Floridians grew by nearly 150,000 to a staggering estimated total of 1,686,000.
 
On February 1, 2018 a federal district court judge in Tallahassee ruled that the “unfettered discretion that the [Florida] Clemency Board possesses” violates both the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The case – Hand v. Scott – is a class action lawsuit filed last March by the Fair Elections Legal Network. A copy of the opinion can be found here.
 
More comprehensive information, including application forms, can be found on this section of the Florida Commission on Offender Review website.
 
Voting Rights Restoration Amendment History

After years of advocating for change with the courts and governors’ offices, the Brennan Center joined with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and others to draft Amendment 4 and push for its inclusion on the 2018 ballot. In October 2016, the initiative’s sponsors gathered enough signatures to trigger review by the Florida Supreme Court — a process required of all constitutional amendments. The process evaluated only whether an initiative meets Florida’s rules for how amendments can be written; it did not address an amendment’s substance. After a March 6, 2016 hearing, at which the State Attorney General did not oppose the proposal, the Court approved the text of the ballot initiative.

This decision cleared the way for the ballot initiative to appear on the ballot once the initiative’s supporters collected enough signatures.

On January 23, 2018 Floridians for a Fair Democracy announced that their campaign, Florida Second Chances, had surpassed the 766,200 signature threshold to get Amendment 4 on the 2018 ballot. For the next 10 months, the campaign worked to build a massive groundswell of bipartisan support that culminated in the Amendment’s passage on November 6, 2018.

Past Developments

For many years, Florida’s harshest-in-the-nation disenfranchisement policy has received attention from policymakers and advocates alike.

In March 2011, Gov. Scott eliminated Gov. Crist’s reforms and created additional barriers for people seeking to have their voting rights restored. The Brennan Center and other national civil rights organizations strongly opposed the plan in a joint letter to the Florida Clemency Board. The American Probation and Parole Association also submitted its own letter encouraging the Board to maintain Gov. Crist’s clemency reforms.

In April 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist took an incremental step towards reform when he issued revised rules of executive clemency. Notably, this change created automatic rights restoration for people completing sentences for certain felony convictions. A year later, in 2008, Gov. Crist’s office announced that over 115,000 Floridians had regained voting rights since the new rules were implemented.

In 2000, the Brennan Center and co-counsel, representing more than 600,000 citizens, filed a lawsuit – Johnson v. Bush – that challenged Florida’s permanent disenfranchisement constitutional provision. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, ultimately allowed the law to stand.

For more information about the Brennan Center’s work on Restoring Voting Rights in Florida, please contact Makeda Yohannes, at makeda.yohannes@nyu.edu.