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On Voting Rights, Florida Turns Back The Clock To Ugly Era

Last week, Governor Rick Scott and the other members of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency voted unanimously to roll back rules that had made it easier for nonviolent felons to regain their voting and other civil rights upon completion of their sentences. The previous rules had been championed by former Republican Governor Charlie Crist in 2007 and were considered a historic step away from Florida’s long history of disenfranchising ex-felons. Under the new requirements - which are among the strictest in the country - nonviolent offenders would have to wait five years upon their release from prison to even apply for the chance to have their rights restored without a hearing. Ex-felons convicted for violent offenses would have to wait seven years to apply as well as face a mandatory hearing in order to have their rights reinstated.

Florida once boasted the largest number of disenfranchised felons in the nation, with over 957,000 Floridians - 20% of whom were African American - barred from voting in the 2004 election despite having fully paid their debt to society. As a result of the 2007 rule change, over 100,000 ex-convicts were able to register to vote ahead of the 2008 election. Since 2007, another 54,000 ex-convicts have had their voting rights restored under the relaxed rules.

Republican state Attorney General Pam Bondi drafted the new proposal, which she said would be “fair and restore a proper respect for the rights of law abiding citizens.” She further added that felons deserved their rights only “after they have demonstrated a commitment to living a crime-free life.” Bondi, Scott, and other members of the board did not make the Jim Crow-style proposal public until the day of the hearing, only providing speakers and members of the media copies of the 24-page plan within minutes of the vote. Some board members openly acknowledged the fact that they had not yet even examined the proposal.

Experts believe that the change, which is effective immediately, could affect anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 nonviolent felons, including those who posted applications even before the new rules were passed. According to a parole board hearing that took place in June 2010, nearly 80,000 applications were still considered pending - if only 154,000 applications were successfully processed between 2007 and 2011, it is likely that the majority of the 80,000 applications still backlogged will be affected. The majority of these ex-felons would likely be African Americans, according to the Sentencing Project, as African Americans comprise half of the state’s prison population.

The state’s felon disenfranchisement laws are mired in ugly post-Civil War history. According to the Brennan Center, after slaves were freed, Florida legislators recognized the potential political power of African American men, who comprised nearly half of the state’s population. These legislators reacted by subsequently passing the Black Codes. A crucial component of the Codes was an expansion of the criminal justice system to outlaw minor offenses that ex-slaves were presumably more likely to commit. Crimes for “mischief” and “insulting gestures” were included, and under the codes, ex-slaves could be arrested and fined for vagrancy if they did not have proof of employment. By the 1870-1880’s, more than 95% of the men detained in the state’s prison camps were African American. When Florida’s constitution was revised in 1868, a provision to ban ex-felons from voting unless their rights were restored by the Governor and his cabinet was included.

Other civil rights were also affected by last week’s ruling, including the ability to serve on a jury, hold public office, and the right to hold certain jobs requiring licenses, such as alarm system contractors and dental hygienists. According to Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the rule change is immune from court challenge because it falls under the pardon power of the executive branch.

Full Resources from this Article

On Voting Rights, Florida Turns Back The Clock To Ugly Era

American Civil Liberties Union - Florida’s Clemency Board Approves Secret Plan to Restrict Voting Rights in State with Troubled Voting History
Brennan Center for Justice - History of Florida’s Felony Disenfranchisement Provision
Washington Post - Fla. Republicans make it harder for ex-felons to vote
The Sentencing Project
* Florida Parole Board hearing notes courtesy of The Sentencing Project, received via FOIL by the ACLU of Florida. Available upon request.

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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