1.6 Million Floridians, Disproportionately African American, Voiceless in Our Democracy Because of Past Criminal Convictions
Florida’s lifetime ban on voting for people with past felony convictions is one of the harshest laws in the nation and its severe moral, racial, and economic consequences demand it be replaced, according to a new report released today by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The analysis comes as the Florida Supreme Court is evaluating a ballot initiative that would amend the state’s constitution and drastically reform the law.
Florida’s law is radically out-of-step with policies around the rest of the country. It is one of only three states with a lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions. Currently, the only way they can vote is if they’re granted clemency by the government. Individuals with past convictions can apply for rights restoration after waiting five years (in some cases seven), and completing all elements of their sentence including community supervision and paying any outstanding fees and fines.
This strict law impacts 21 percent of Florida’s voting-age African Americans and can be traced back to America’s Jim Crow past, explains author Erika Wood, a professor at New York Law School.
During Reconstruction, Florida’s constitution technically extended voting rights to all males, but it included several provisions, like criminal disenfranchisement, to make it harder for blacks to vote. The state further infringed on voting rights when it targeted criminal laws to impact African Americans, and instituted a poll tax. By 1958, just seven African Americans were registered to vote out of 10,930 black adults in one Florida county.
Although the nation has made great strides in extending equality at the ballot box since then, this impact is still felt. Nearly one-third of Florida’s 1.6 million disenfranchised voters are black, even though African Americans make up just 16 percent of the state’s population, according to data cited in the study.
“Florida’s criminal disenfranchisement law is rooted in some of our country’s most discriminatory voting practices, and it continues to have its intended effects today,” said Wood, who is also the director of the Voting Rights and Civic Participation Project of the Impact Center for Public Interest Law. “It is time for Florida to learn from the past and then leave it behind. The right to vote should not be used as a tool for lifetime punishment.”
“This state’s law is the fullest expression of the antiquated system that bars millions in our very own communities from voting,” writes Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights & elections project at the Brennan Center, in the foreword. “The public deserves to understand where this law came from, how it works today, the effects it has on citizens and the state — and why it must change.”
“Silencing 1.6 million voices is precisely the opposite of what democracy looks like,” said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “These are citizens who have paid their debt to society, and have a second chance. They are living and working in communities across the Sunshine State. Just like everyone else, they should be able to have input on decisions that will impact them every day.”