FL: Still Much Work to Be Done

Yesterday, Governor Charlie Crist (R) reported that Florida has restored voting rights to 115,232 people with felony convictions since the state revised its clemency procedure....

June 20, 2008

Yesterday, Governor Charlie Crist (R) reported that Florida
has restored voting rights to 115,232 people with felony convictions since the
state revised its clemency procedure. The new clemency rules that Crist pushed
through in 2007 ease the restoration process for some who have committed lesser
offenses, like low-level drug dealing. The impact of the change is notable, and
Governor Crist should be acknowledged
for taking an important first step. But there is still much work to be done.

First, the total number of people stripped of their voting
rights because of a criminal conviction is about 950,000, meaning that only
about 12% of those who are disenfranchised have regained the right to vote
since the 2007 change. According to the Florida Department of Corrections,
nearly 300,000 of these people are "Level I" offenders convicted of crimes that
permit them to regain their voting rights under the new rules. But because of
backlogs created by the still cumbersome process, the majority of those
potential voters remains unable to cast a ballot in November.

So what's happening
to the rest? Some of them had their votes restored before the legal change, but
because Florida
treats classes of felons differently under the clemency law, most of the
950,000 are ineligible for restoration under the new rules, relegating them to
a lengthy bureaucratic review by the clemency board which meets only four times
a year.

Barriers to vote restoration persist even for those eligible
for restoration under the new rules. Eligibility to apply for restoration is
contingent on an individual satisfying all court-imposed fees, fines, and
restitution, including fees imposed by the state for the costs of
incarceration. Given the lack of employment opportunities for many people with
criminal convictions, the restitution requirement creates a modern-day
poll tax
disenfranchising many otherwise eligible persons. And for those
who actually make it through the system and are seeking to register to vote, many
voter registration drives that target minority and urban communities have been forced
to shut down
for fear of heavy fines.

The new clemency rules have restored voting rights to tens
of thousands of people who might have been denied under Florida's old regime. Nonetheless, the
process continues to be cumbersome, discretionary, and slow. The right to vote
should not be contingent on an individual's ability to pay, nor should it
depend on an overburdened, underfunded state bureaucracy. The real solution is
to automatically restore the right to vote and do away with the clemency
process altogether. There should be no backlog to democracy.