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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…

  • Kahlil Williams
June 21, 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.