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Florida: An Outlier in Denying Voting Rights

  • Erika Wood
Published: December 16, 2016

Flor­ida is one of only three states with a life­time voting ban for people with felony convic­tions. The strict law disen­fran­chises 1.6 million citizens, includ­ing 21 percent of the state’s voting-age African Amer­ic­ans. This report traces the history of the provi­sion back to Amer­ica’s Jim Crow past and explains how its impact is felt in Flor­id­a’s demo­cracy today.

Read the Fore­word

Read the Intro­duc­tion

Fore­word by Myrna Pérez

In recent years, Amer­ic­ans have endured a wave of highly partisan and discrim­in­at­ory voting restric­tions passed in state legis­latures across the coun­try. These restric­tions have drawn atten­tion for the ways in which they make voting more diffi­cult for many citizens — espe­cially those who are low-income, minor­ity, young, or old. The wave included strict voter ID laws, restric­tions on voter regis­tra­tion, and laws to limit access to voter-friendly reforms like early voting. Chal­lenges to those laws are ongo­ing in courts through­out the coun­try, and their long-term fates are still at issue.

But efforts to restrict the right to vote are not new in the United States, and few, if any, restric­tions have endured for as long, and disen­fran­chised as many Amer­ic­ans, as crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws.

Across the nation, crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws deny over 6 million Amer­ic­ans a say in our demo­cracy. More than 4.7 million of these citizens have left prison and are in their communit­ies — work­ing, rais­ing famil­ies, and paying taxes. At the same time, they remain blocked from join­ing their neigh­bors at the polls. People of color bear the brunt of the prac­tice, with over 1 in 13 African Amer­ic­ans disen­fran­chised — one-third of the total denied the right to vote.

Each state has differ­ent rules govern­ing who can or cannot vote. In some places the rules are simple: 14 states plus D.C. auto­mat­ic­ally restore rights when an indi­vidual leaves incar­cer­a­tion. But others extend disen­fran­chise­ment well beyond prison. For instance, 20 states deny voting rights to people on parole or proba­tion. That includes states like Geor­gia, where an estim­ated 250,000 citizens cannot vote, and Texas, where nearly 500,000 people currently cannot vote because of a crim­inal convic­tion.

But no state disen­fran­chises more of its citizens than Flor­ida. The state imposes a what for all prac­tical purposes is a life­time voting ban for people with past felony convic­tions. In total, more than 1.6 million people have lost their right to vote in Flor­ida, includ­ing one in five African-Amer­ican adults. And to get their voting rights back, citizens must wait five to seven years and submit an applic­a­tion with support­ing docu­ment­a­tion to the state’s governor, who in recent years has denied all but a few hundred applic­ants out of tens of thou­sands.

Mass disen­fran­chise­ment has severe consequences for Flor­id­a’s communit­ies. For instance, one study found that African Amer­ic­ans in communit­ies subject to harsh disen­fran­chise­ment laws exper­i­ence a decrease in turnout levels, regard­less if they them­selves were incar­cer­ated.1 These costs come with no bene­fits for Flor­id­a’s public safety. There is no connec­tion between disen­fran­chise­ment and deterrence of future crime. Indeed, evid­ence from Flor­ida suggests that voting makes crim­inal beha­vior less likely, explain­ing support for reform from figures in the law enforce­ment and correc­tions sectors.

In this report, Professor Erika Wood of New York Law School makes the case against Flor­id­a’s law — from its Jim Crow roots to its troub­ling present. Histor­ical accounts make the law’s original racist intent very clear. The most current data detail not only the millions of Flor­idi­ans barred from the polls, but the way in which the state’s system perpetu­ates their disen­fran­chise­ment and has even interfered with the voting rights of eligible citizens. This report explains the burden that Flor­id­a’s law places on both voters and the state itself, and the urgent need to finally replace it.

Change is possible. It’s happen­ing through­out the coun­try. Over the last two decades, more than 20 states have allowed more people with past convic­tions to vote, to vote sooner, or to access that right more easily. In 2016 alone, Maryland’s legis­lature enfran­chised more than 40,000 people, Delaware removed finan­cial barri­ers to rights restor­a­tion, and Virgini­a’s governor commit­ted to restor­ing voting rights for over 200,000 citizens. And more broadly, Amer­ic­ans are look­ing for ways to make our crim­inal justice system smarter, less punit­ive, and more rehab­il­it­at­ive.

Today in Flor­ida, citizens are call­ing for a ballot initi­at­ive to change the state’s consti­tu­tion and dramat­ic­ally reform Flor­id­a’s disen­fran­chise­ment policy. If success­ful, the change could restore voting rights to nearly one-quarter of Amer­ica’s disen­fran­chised popu­la­tion.

This report was writ­ten by Professor Wood and published by the Bren­nan Center because Flor­id­a’s life­time voting ban is a stain on our demo­cracy. This state’s law is the fullest expres­sion of the anti­quated system that bars millions in our very own communit­ies from voting. 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.


In the United States today, more than 6 million Amer­ican citizens are denied the right to vote because of past crim­inal convic­tions. One-quarter of those disen­fran­chised Amer­ic­ans live in one state: Flor­ida.

With 29 elect­oral votes, Flor­ida can be a crit­ical swing state in national elec­tions. Yet more than 1.6 million Flor­ida resid­ents are barred from voting. Flor­ida denies the right to vote to more of its resid­ents than any state, and to the largest percent­age of its voting-age citizens than any state. Nearly one-third of those who have lost the right to vote for life in Flor­ida are black, although African Amer­ic­ans make up just 16 percent of the state’s popu­la­tion.2 Flor­id­a’s law disen­fran­chises 21 percent of its total African-Amer­ican voting-age popu­la­tion.

The breadth and depth of Flor­id­a’s disen­fran­chise­ment of its resid­ents repres­ent a radical depar­ture from the norm in the United States, which is itself an outlier inter­na­tion­ally. Flor­ida has one of the most punish­ing and restrict­ive crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws.4 A felony convic­tion in Flor­ida results in life­time loss of voting rights, unless the governor chooses to restore those rights through his clem­ency power. Only Iowa and Kentucky have similar life­time bans, but Flor­ida disen­fran­chises more than four times as many resid­ents as those two states combined.

Flor­id­a’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment law traces its roots back to the racism of the deep South during Recon­struc­tion and Jim Crow. As our coun­try began to form­ally recog­nize in the Consti­tu­tion all forms of equal­ity for freed slaves, includ­ing the right to vote, politi­cians, civic lead­ers, and wealthy elites in Flor­ida took delib­er­ate and nefar­i­ous steps to system­at­ic­ally keep the state’s African Amer­ic­ans enslaved and disem­powered. Flor­id­a’s crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment law was at the center of these efforts, and its inten­ded effects continue today.

In the last two decades, more than 20 states have changed their crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment policies to expand voter eligib­il­ity or make the restor­a­tion process less restrict­ive.5 It is time for Flor­ida to leave its shame­ful past behind, and recog­nize that the full prom­ise of Amer­ican demo­cracy can only be real­ized with the full parti­cip­a­tion of all citizens, across all communit­ies.