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Brennan Center Challenges Florida Law That Denies Ex-Felons’ Right to Vote

September 21, 2000

For Immediate Release
September 21, 2000

Contact Information:
Amanda Cooper, 212 998–6736

Brennan Center Challenges Florida Law that Denies Ex-Felons’ Right to Vote

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is filing suit today in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s permanent disenfranchisement of ex-felons. By conservative estimates, Florida’s lifetime ban denies the vote to more than half a million state residents who have fully served felony sentences – 4.6 percent of the State’s voting-age population. The bar to democratic participation disproportionately harms Florida’s African-American population: at least one in four black men residing in Florida (23.8 percent) is unable to vote due to a current or past conviction. Florida has more disenfranchised ex-felons than any state in the nation.

The Brennan Center is joined by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Florida civil rights attorney James Green in bringing this class action seeking injunctive relief for Florida’s ex-felons.

Florida’s history of racial discrimination figures prominently in the plaintiffs’ legal arguments. The State’s voting ban on ex-felons, adopted three years after the Civil War, was one of many Reconstruction-era tactics designed to undermine the political power of ex-slaves. The lawsuit argues that, because of its discriminatory intent and effect, Florida’s voting ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

There should be no confusion: this case is about democracy, not crime,” says Nancy Northup, Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and a former federal prosecutor. “As much as we want to believe that institutionalized racial discrimination is in our past, that’s not true. More work must be done to ensure full democratic rights for all our citizens.”

Florida is one of 13 states that permanently disenfranchise ex-felons. Although Florida’s ex-felons can apply for reinstatement, the process is onerous, and applications are frequently denied, in part because applicants often owe fines and other financial penalties. The lawsuit argues that by requiring repayment before restoring the right to vote, Florida is imposing a poll tax in violation of the Voting Rights Act (Sec. 10) and the Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Amendments. (For more on the Constitutional and statutory arguments in this case, please see the full complaint).

Plaintiff Thomas Johnson is the Executive Director of House of Hope of Alachua County in Gainesville, Florida, a program which provides released prisoners with shelter, mentoring, job placement and other services as they transition out of supervised life. He was recruited from a position in another state to direct this program. Because he is an ex-felon, when Mr. Johnson moved to Florida he lost his right to vote.

“I am a productive and active member of this community, but I can not weigh in on the decisions that are made here,” says Mr. Johnson. “I paid my debt, and now I have a job that helps people and improves my community. I am contributing to the growth of my society but I can’t influence its direction, I can only watch while my community forms around me without my input. My one vote would count, but I can’t cast it.”

In keeping with the nationwide explosion in the prison population, the number of people disenfranchised for a felony conviction in Florida has grown exponentially. In the past 24 years, the number of Florida residents disenfranchised for a felony conviction has grown from approximately 70,000 to over 500,000 – a jump from 1 percent to 5 percent of the State’s eligible voters.

For more information, please call Amanda Cooper at 212.998.6736 or go to the Johnson v. Bush page.