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.