Florida: An Outlier in Denying Voting Rights

December 16, 2016

Florida is one of only three states with a lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions. The strict law disenfranchises 1.6 million citizens, including 21 percent of the state’s voting-age African Americans. This report traces the history of the provision back to America’s Jim Crow past and explains how its impact is felt in Florida’s democracy today.

Read the Foreword

Read the Introduction

Download the Report


Foreword by Myrna Pérez

In recent years, Americans have endured a wave of highly partisan and discriminatory voting restrictions passed in state legislatures across the country. These restrictions have drawn attention for the ways in which they make voting more difficult for many citizens — especially those who are low-income, minority, young, or old. The wave included strict voter ID laws, restrictions on voter registration, and laws to limit access to voter-friendly reforms like early voting. Challenges to those laws are ongoing in courts throughout the country, and their long-term fates are still at issue.

But efforts to restrict the right to vote are not new in the United States, and few, if any, restrictions have endured for as long, and disenfranchised as many Americans, as criminal disenfranchisement laws.

Across the nation, criminal disenfranchisement laws deny over 6 million Americans a say in our democracy. More than 4.7 million of these citizens have left prison and are in their communities — working, raising families, and paying taxes. At the same time, they remain blocked from joining their neighbors at the polls. People of color bear the brunt of the practice, with over 1 in 13 African Americans disenfranchised — one-third of the total denied the right to vote.

Each state has different rules governing who can or cannot vote. In some places the rules are simple: 14 states plus D.C. automatically restore rights when an individual leaves incarceration. But others extend disenfranchisement well beyond prison. For instance, 20 states deny voting rights to people on parole or probation. That includes states like Georgia, where an estimated 250,000 citizens cannot vote, and Texas, where nearly 500,000 people currently cannot vote because of a criminal conviction.

But no state disenfranchises more of its citizens than Florida. The state imposes a what for all practical purposes is a lifetime voting ban for people with past felony convictions. In total, more than 1.6 million people have lost their right to vote in Florida, including one in five African-American adults. And to get their voting rights back, citizens must wait five to seven years and submit an application with supporting documentation to the state’s governor, who in recent years has denied all but a few hundred applicants out of tens of thousands.

Mass disenfranchisement has severe consequences for Florida’s communities. For instance, one study found that African Americans in communities subject to harsh disenfranchisement laws experience a decrease in turnout levels, regardless if they themselves were incarcerated.1 These costs come with no benefits for Florida’s public safety. There is no connection between disenfranchisement and deterrence of future crime. Indeed, evidence from Florida suggests that voting makes criminal behavior less likely, explaining support for reform from figures in the law enforcement and corrections sectors.

In this report, Professor Erika Wood of New York Law School makes the case against Florida’s law — from its Jim Crow roots to its troubling present. Historical accounts make the law’s original racist intent very clear. The most current data detail not only the millions of Floridians barred from the polls, but the way in which the state’s system perpetuates their disenfranchisement and has even interfered with the voting rights of eligible citizens. This report explains the burden that Florida’s law places on both voters and the state itself, and the urgent need to finally replace it.

Change is possible. It’s happening throughout the country. Over the last two decades, more than 20 states have allowed more people with past convictions to vote, to vote sooner, or to access that right more easily. In 2016 alone, Maryland’s legislature enfranchised more than 40,000 people, Delaware removed financial barriers to rights restoration, and Virginia’s governor committed to restoring voting rights for over 200,000 citizens. And more broadly, Americans are looking for ways to make our criminal justice system smarter, less punitive, and more rehabilitative.

Today in Florida, citizens are calling for a ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution and dramatically reform Florida’s disenfranchisement policy. If successful, the change could restore voting rights to nearly one-quarter of America’s disenfranchised population.

This report was written by Professor Wood and published by the Brennan Center because Florida’s lifetime voting ban is a stain on our democracy. This state’s law is the fullest expression of the antiquated system that bars millions in our very own communities from voting. The public deserves to understand where this law came from, how it works today, the effects it has on citizens and the state — and why  it must change.

Introduction

In the United States today, more than 6 million American citizens are denied the right to vote because of past criminal convictions. One-quarter of those disenfranchised Americans live in one state: Florida.

With 29 electoral votes, Florida can be a critical swing state in national elections. Yet more than 1.6 million Florida residents are barred from voting. Florida denies the right to vote to more of its residents than any state, and to the largest percentage of its voting-age citizens than any state. Nearly one-third of those who have lost the right to vote for life in Florida are black, although African Americans make up just 16 percent of the state’s population.2 Florida’s law disenfranchises 21 percent of its total African-American voting-age population.

The breadth and depth of Florida’s disenfranchisement of its residents represent a radical departure from the norm in the United States, which is itself an outlier internationally. Florida has one of the most punishing and restrictive criminal disenfranchisement laws.4 A felony conviction in Florida results in lifetime loss of voting rights, unless the governor chooses to restore those rights through his clemency power. Only Iowa and Kentucky have similar lifetime bans, but Florida disenfranchises more than four times as many residents as those two states combined.

Florida’s felony disenfranchisement law traces its roots back to the racism of the deep South during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. As our country began to formally recognize in the Constitution all forms of equality for freed slaves, including the right to vote, politicians, civic leaders, and wealthy elites in Florida took deliberate and nefarious steps to systematically keep the state’s African Americans enslaved and disempowered. Florida’s criminal disenfranchisement law was at the center of these efforts, and its intended effects continue today.

In the last two decades, more than 20 states have changed their criminal disenfranchisement policies to expand voter eligibility or make the restoration process less restrictive.5 It is time for Florida to leave its shameful past behind, and recognize that the full promise of American democracy can only be realized with the full participation of all citizens, across all communities.