The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments for the introduction of a new amendment to Florida’s constitution in March 2018. The amendment, brought forth by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, seeks to lift the many obstacles convicted felons face to restore their constitutional right to vote. Florida is one of only three states in which a person can lose his right to vote for life if he is convicted of a felony offense. As a result, over 1.6 million Floridians, or 9% of Florida’s voting population, cannot vote, hold public office, or serve on a jury.
Compared to many other states, Florida is an anomaly. Most states restore felons’ voting rights upon the completion of a sentence. Therefore, in many other states only 2% of the voting population cannot cast a ballot. In Florida, however, ex-felons must apply individually to the state Office of Executive Clemency to attempt to restore their rights. It is up to the governor and his cabinet to determine whose rights to restore.
Restoration of Rights at the Mercy of the Governor
Ex-felons who are actively engaged in rebuilding their lives as productive members of society face many setbacks. Under Governor Rick Scott, the most restrictive clemency rules have prevented many former felons from regaining voting rights. In the five years since Governor Scott took office, his clemency board has reviewed more than 100,000 cases and granted rights to fewer than 2,0000 Floridians. Over 20,000 applications await results. Under former Governor Charlie Crist, many former felons convicted of non-violent offenses had their rights restored. Under the revised executive clemency laws he implemented, over 115,000 Floridians regained voting rights.
Some members of the Florida Legislature and voting rights activists believe restricting voting rights is a violation of a person’s civil rights. Representative Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, sponsored a bill dubbed the “No One Can Take Away Your Right to Vote Act,” which would guarantee ex-convicts the right to vote after they complete their sentences. Former felons convicted of murder, manslaughter, or sexual offenses would not be protected by this law should it pass.
The Average Disenfranchised Voter
Most Floridians who cannot vote due to a felony conviction have never set foot in prison. According to Desmond Meade, the chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, approximately 170,000 people in Florida are convicted of felony offenses. Fewer than 25% of these are sent to prison. The “overwhelming majority…are people who haven’t spent one day in prison. They’re out in the community trying to regain their lives. They’re our family, our friends, our congregations.” Mr. Meade himself is a former felon who has since graduated law school. He is among the hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised voters fighting to change the state’s rights restoration process.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition collected signatures to update Florida’s clemency process to automatically restore voting rights to most ex-felons. It received more than the necessary signatures to trigger the review of the clemency process by the Florida Supreme Court. While they currently have over 68,000 signatures supporting their cause, they need 600,000 to introduce the proposed amendment as a bill on the 2018 ballot.
Losing your right to vote is just one of the many severe consequences that can follow a felony conviction. If you face felony charges, fight the charges against you with an experienced and determined lawyer on your side. For over 30 years, Brian Gabriel of The Law Office of Gabriel & Gabriel has established a career from defending those who are accused of felony crimes in West Palm Beach. Call 561-622-5575 to explore your legal options with a free case review.