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A Transformative Step for Democracy in Florida

Not since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 has a single change in the law extended the franchise to as many people as Florida did passing Amendment 4.

November 7, 2018

Voters in the Sunshine State achieved a major win for Amer­ican demo­cracy today. By passing Amend­ment 4, voters changed the state consti­tu­tion and restored the right to vote to citizens with felony convic­tions in their past who have finished serving their sentences. This is no small number — some 1.4 million indi­vidu­als living and work­ing in the state will now have the oppor­tun­ity to have their voices heard in their communit­ies. Changes to voting rights of this magnitude are few and far between. Not since the 26th Amend­ment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971 has a single change in the law exten­ded the fran­chise to so many in the United States at once.

This season has seen an aggress­ive effort to restrict access to the ballot box — from purges in Geor­gia and Alabama to new restrict­ive voter ID laws in North Dakota, proponents of a less inclus­ive demo­cracy exer­ted their power in troub­ling ways. In that context, there is even more cause to celeb­rate the passage of the Voting Restor­a­tion Amend­ment in Flor­ida. What’s more, this was a cause embraced by voters of all polit­ical stripes; while the races for governor and senator are neck-and-neck, the Voting Restor­a­tion Amend­ment was suppor­ted by more than 63 percent of Flor­id­a’s voters.

In order to truly appre­ci­ate the impact that this will have on Flor­id­a’s demo­cracy, it is import­ant that we recall the roots of the old system, and the terrible consequences it had. And in order to ensure that the restor­a­tion of voting rights to so many actu­ally results in new voters and a more inclus­ive polit­ical conver­sa­tion, we must prepare to do the import­ant work of welcom­ing return­ing citizens to the conver­sa­tion in the months to come.

Racial Impacts of Flor­id­a’s Old System

By link­ing voting rights to racist crim­inal laws known as the “Black Code” during the Recon­struc­tion era, Flor­id­a’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment law, writ­ten into the state’s 1868 consti­tu­tion, was origin­ally inten­ded to disen­fran­chise black citizens. That is exactly what it did, even 150 years later. Although black indi­vidu­als make up just 14 percent of the citizen voting-age popu­la­tion in Flor­ida, they consti­tuted 42 percent of indi­vidu­als released from prison between 2016 and 2017. Research­ers have estim­ated that nearly one in four black males were perman­ently disen­fran­chised due to a felony convic­tion, compared to fewer than one in 10 white men.

This had enorm­ous rami­fic­a­tions for Flor­id­a’s elect­or­ate: Just 75 percent of black men are registered, versus 89 percent of white men. There are, of course, other factors at play — on aver­age, black men gradu­ate from college at lower rates and earn less money than white men, both of which are correl­ated with lower regis­tra­tion rates. But that’s true for black women vis-à-vis white women, too, and their regis­tra­tion rates are much closer. Since women of all races are less likely to be impacted by felony disen­fran­chise­ment rules, there is good reason to believe that much of the regis­tra­tion gap among men was driven by these rules.

Prob­lems with Discre­tion­ary Re-Enfran­chise­ment Policies

Dispar­it­ies in the crim­inal justice system weren’t the only way in which felony disen­fran­chise­ment laws had outsized consequences for Flor­id­a’s black voters. Gov. Rick Scot­t’s discre­tion­ary process for rights restor­a­tion further exacer­bated these consequences.

Gov. Charlie Crist (Scot­t’s prede­cessor) insti­tuted a policy auto­mat­ic­ally restor­ing voting rights for some of Flor­id­a’s return­ing citizens. This policy, based largely on the sever­ity of the crime commit­ted by an indi­vidual, was in place from April of 2007 until it was ended by Rick Scott in March of 2011. During that period of just under four years, more than 150,000 Flor­idi­ans with felony convic­tions had their voting rights restored. There is not publicly avail­able data on the race of all those people. But using data from the voter file, we know the race of the formerly incar­cer­ated people (but not people sentenced to felony proba­tion) whose rights were restored and that went on to register. Of those indi­vidu­als who even­tu­ally went on to register, more than half were black, and 37 percent were white. Although exact numbers about the demo­graph­ics of the disen­fran­chised popu­la­tion in Flor­ida are hard to come by, these shares are broadly reflect­ive of the disen­fran­chised popu­la­tion as a whole.

In 2011, Gov. Scott ended the auto­matic process for rights restor­a­tion. Instead, returned citizens were required to apply to the Clem­ency Review Board for restor­a­tion of their voting rights. There was a back­log of more than 10,000 applic­a­tions, and even when the board got around to review­ing an applic­a­tion, its decision-making process was arbit­rary and opaque. Scott effect­ively bragged that he could issue pardons to whomever he wished, and that any over­sight was an uncon­sti­tu­tional curtail­ment of his prerog­at­ive. As he himself put it, “There’s abso­lutely no stand­ards, so we can make any decisions we want.”

Inten­tional or not, Scot­t’s discre­tion­ary system of rights restor­a­tion exacer­bated the racist impacts of felony disen­fran­chise­ment. Scott restored the right to vote to very, very few people — between 2011 and April of 2018, just 3,000 indi­vidu­als. Again, our data on race is limited to indi­vidu­als who were formerly incar­cer­ated and went on to register. Of those, less than a third (20) were black. Thirty-one of them were white.

While we’re of course deal­ing with a very small sample here, it is remark­able that previ­ously incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als who had their rights restored under Crist and registered to vote were substan­tially more likely to be black than under Scott. 

Scot­t’s discre­tion­ary system also skewed the impact of rights restor­a­tion along partisan lines. Those who had their rights restored by Scott were twice as likely to register as Repub­lic­ans as indi­vidu­als who had their rights restored by Crist. Moreover, the process set up by Scott certainly created reason to ques­tion whether clem­ency decisions were made for polit­ical reas­ons. In one instance, Scott asked an applic­ant for clem­ency during his hear­ing why he had voted illeg­ally while disen­fran­chised. The applic­ant attemp­ted to explain himself, and then noted that he had cast the illegal ballot for Scott. Just seconds later, Scott gran­ted his applic­a­tion and restored his voting rights.

None of this should come as a shock; we know that systems that depend on personal discre­tion are likely to further margin­al­ize disad­vant­aged communit­ies, regard­less of the intent of the person making the decision.

Look­ing Forward

We should all be celeb­rat­ing the passage of Amend­ment Four in Flor­ida, but our work is far from finished. Certainly, secur­ing the right to register to vote is an import­ant and signi­fic­ant first step. But that’s what it is — a first step. Our research shows that previ­ously incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als in Flor­ida who have had their rights restored register and vote at very low levels. Currently, just 14 percent of those who went to prison and have had their rights restored are registered to vote. And, in August’s primary, turnout among registered returned citizens was just three-quar­ters that of the statewide aver­age.

There are a host of struc­tural reas­ons why these folks might not register or cast a ballot: lack of trans­port­a­tion, hourly wage jobs that make taking time off to vote diffi­cult, candid­ates that don’t repres­ent their interests, and a lack of famili­ar­ity with the process. Some of these can be addressed through policies such as auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, which make getting on the rolls in the first place easier. But truly creat­ing a system in which our returned neigh­bors’ voices are heard will require much hard work. And so, while we celeb­rate tonight’s win in Flor­ida, let’s steel ourselves for the work to come.