Floridians Should Agree to Restore Voting Rights for People with Past Convictions

March 6, 2017

UPDATE: On Thursday, April 20, the Florida Supreme Court approved the text of the ballot initiative. Click here to read the Brennan Center's press release. 

The op-ed below is cross-posted from Miami Herald.

Over the past two decades, states across the country have made significant progress scaling back archaic laws that collectively deny voting rights to millions of Americans with criminal convictions in their past. But Florida is not one of them: The state has a 150-year-old law that bans people from voting for life if they have a conviction.

Imagine if nearly every adult citizen living in Miami-Dade County lost their right to vote. By the numbers, that is the reality in Florida. According to estimates from the Sentencing Project, nearly 1.5 million citizens across Florida have permanently lost the right to vote even though they have fully completed their sentences.

But this could soon change. Floridians are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to amend the state’s Constitution and restore voting rights to individuals who have completed their sentences for nonviolent crimes. On March 6, the Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the text of the Voting Restoration Amendment. If the court approves, and the initiative’s supporters collect enough signatures, it can appear on the ballot.

This common-sense amendment will give people living and working in Florida’s communities a second chance — and fix a bureaucratic and costly system that provides zero benefits for the state.

Florida citizens can regain their voting rights through clemency, but the current process put in place by Gov. Rick Scott is needlessly cumbersome. Citizens who want their rights back must wait five to seven years after fully completing their sentence, pay fees for court documents and submit an application. During Scott’s time in office, thousands of applications have been received and many more pending, but Scott approves just a few hundred in a given year. This creates what for all practical purposes is a lifetime voting ban for citizens with felony convictions.

The process also wastes government time and taxpayer dollars. The Florida Commission on Offender Review, which reviews clemency applications, has an approximately $10 million budget. According to a recent Brennan Center report, in the first year under Scott’s new rules, agency employees took an average of 5.1 hours to review one application. The task took only 0.6 hours under prior rules.

Instead of throwing away resources to keep citizens from voting, evidence suggests restoring rights actually boosts public safety and helps these individuals re-enter society. A 2011 Florida government study found that people released from prison whose rights were restored were three times less likely to return to prison or supervision than counterparts without the opportunity to vote.

Moreover, public safety experts like the American Parole and Probation Association have for years argued that restoring voting rights aids in re-entry. They recognize that bringing people into the political process makes them stakeholders in the community, which helps steer them away from future crimes.

States are heeding this advice and extending voting rights to more citizens. Since 2000, four states have lifted lifetime bans similar to that of Florida’s: Delaware, New Mexico, Nebraska and Maryland. Florida’s failure to follow suit has made it an extreme outlier. Every state besides Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa now provides a way for some citizens with past convictions to automatically get their voting rights restored (or never lose them in the first place). This amendment is Florida’s chance to join the mainstream.

If and when this amendment appears on the ballot, Floridians will be given an unusual opportunity: voting on the voting rights of their fellow citizens. When making this decision, voters should consider the importance of a second chance to someone who has committed a crime in his or her past, but is now part of the community and trying to care for themselves and their families just like everyone else. It is hard to do that without a voice in our government. This amendment will give them that voice.

(Photo: Thinkstock)