Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Florida

March 6, 2017

Florida has one of the most punitive disenfranchisement policies in the country, permanently barring all citizens with felony convictions from voting unless they individually apply to the state Office of Executive Clemency for rights restoration. 

This policy bars more than 1.6 million Floridians – including more than one in five African-Americans in the state – from the polls. Florida has the highest disenfranchisement rate in the country.
 
Read more about the historical roots and current impact of this policy in Florida: An Outlier in Denying Voting Rights.
 
Current Rights Restoration Process
 
Florida is 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 is determined by clemency rules set by the state’s governor. 
 
The current clemency rules, which Gov. Rick Scott issued in 2011, are 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.
 
More comprehensive information, including application forms, can be found on this section of the Florida Commission on Offender Review website.
 
Voting Rights Restoration Amendment
 
Florida citizens are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would amend Florida’s constitution and restore voting rights to most people who have completed their sentences. 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. That review will evaluate only whether the initiative meets Florida’s rules for how amendments can be written; it will not address the amendment’s substance. If the court approves, and the initiative’s supporters collect enough signatures, it can appear on the ballot. Oral argument on the matter will take place on March 6.

Past Developments

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

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.

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 March 2011, Gov. Scott eliminated Gov. Crist’s reforms by 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.

Brennan Center Materials

Press Coverage

Brennan Center Publications

  • My First Vote (2009)
    • Testimonials of individuals who regained their voting rights after being disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions.
  • Restoring the Right to Vote, Erika Wood (2009)
    • The Brennan Center’s policy proposal for restoring voting rights for citizens with past criminal convictions.
  • De Facto Disenfranchisement, Erika Wood & Rachel Bloom (2008)
    • A report on how complex laws, poorly informed officials, and misinformation lead to the de facto disenfranchisement of citizens with past criminal convictions who are eligible to vote.

For more information about the Brennan Center’s work on Restoring Voting Rights in Florida, please contact Erin Kelley, at erin.kelley@nyu.edu.