Reubin Askew, Champion of Voting Rights

Yesterday, Florida lost one of its great progressive leaders in former Gov. Askew, who broadly restored the right to vote to Floridians with criminal convictions.

March 14, 2014
Reubin Askew

By Max Sarinsky, J.D. candidate at NYU School of Law and Brennan Center clinic student

Yesterday, Florida lost one of its great progressive leaders in former Gov. Reubin Askew. Widely recognized for fortifying the social safety net, protecting workers’ rights, and bringing transparency to the State Capitol, Askew should also be remembered for one of his less news-grabbing initiatives: broadly restoring the right to vote to Floridians with criminal convictions.

Florida has perhaps the harshest criminal disenfranchisement policy in the nation. Under a constitutional provision that has roots in the Jim Crow era, people with criminal convictions are permanently disenfranchised unless their rights are restored through an onerous clemency process. Throughout Florida’s history, this provision was used to restrict ethnic and racial minorities – who are disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system – from having a say in the political process.

As a two-term governor in the ‘70s, Askew ended permanent disenfranchisement by successfully urging his Cabinet to adopt a policy that automatically restored voting rights to all persons who have completed their sentences. No longer would people with criminal convictions have to navigate long lines and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures for the government to decide whether they should regain the right to vote.

Askew’s actions reflect an understanding that people who have served their time, if given an opportunity to contribute, can become productive members of society. It was a policy firmly rooted in forgiveness, fairness, and the transformative power of democratic participation. Unfortunately, this sensible and humane policy didn’t last long. Beginning shortly after Askew left office, subsequent administrations chipped away at his reforms – leaving in place few, exceedingly narrow channels to regaining voting rights.

Under current policy implemented in 2011 by Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and the Florida cabinet, persons with criminal convictions must wait between five and seven years after completing all conditions of their sentence, during which they must remain arrest free, before they can even apply to have their rights restored. Even then, they must be affirmatively approved by the cabinet, with many having to wait years just to receive a hearing.

This policy has brought Florida back to its ugly past of mass disenfranchisement and endless delay. From the time Gov. Scott took office in 2011, fewer than 1,000 persons have had their voting rights restored. Compare this to 150,000 persons who had their rights restored under the previous administration led by Gov. Charlie Crist – which itself left a backlog of over 100,000 persons.

Florida now has approximately 1.5 million citizens who are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction – the highest total in the nation by a landslide. Nearly one-quarter of voting-age African-Americans cannot vote.

In a statement mourning his passing, Gov. Scott praised Askew as a “trailblazer for good government” whose “legacy continues to endure.”  In this critical area, however, Askew’s legacy has fallen by the wayside.

Reubin Askew must have understood that a government cannot be truly accountable while so many of its citizens remained voiceless. With his passing at age 85, it’s time that Florida truly honor his legacy by giving a voice to the state’s unmatched disenfranchised population.

(Photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)