- By The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
Thanks to a public groundswell, Floridians now have a historic chance to erase a racist vestige of Jim Crow and restore rights to more than 1.5 million of our fellow citizens who, despite having served their sentences for felony convictions, cannot vote.
Last week, the petition drive by the political committee Floridians for a Fair Democracy surpassed 766,000 signatures. With that strong show of support, November’s ballot will include a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically return civil rights to felons once they’ve served their sentences, including parole, probation and restitution. It wouldn’t apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
Those signatures are heartening. But the momentum can’t stop here. It’s going to take effort to get a 60 percent “yes” vote in an off-year election season and with a ballot stuffed with other amendments, possibly confusing or fatiguing voters.
The change is long, long overdue. Florida is one of only a handful of states, alongside Iowa, Virginia and Kentucky, that permanently bar all felons from voting. In Florida, ex-cons can retrieve their rights only if they complete an arduous, yearslong, case-by-case review by the governor and Cabinet. Only a few succeed.
The result is voter suppression on a mass scale. Of 6.1 million felons who remain barred from voting in the United States, more than a quarter are Floridians. More than 10 percent of voting-age adults in this state cannot vote. That includes, amazingly, 1 out of 5 African-Americans.
It all goes back to the days after the Civil War when defeated Confederate Florida did its best to keep its newly freed slaves away from the polls. The 1868 state constitution stripped felons of the right to vote, while Florida, like other Southern states, passed a slew of laws “essentially intended to criminalize black life,” according to writer Douglas Blackmon.
Florida has grown since then to become the third-most-populous state in the Union, modern and vibrant in almost every way. But that lifelong voting ban remains. In effect, felons in Florida, unlike almost everywhere else, can’t pay back their debt to society by serving their sentences. There is always more debt to pay.
It’s the height of unfairness.
Charlie Crist, when governor and then a Republican, tried to amend all this in 2007 with executive clemency rules that automatically restored voting rights for those who served sentences for lesser felonies. Within a year, more than 155,000 felons got their rights back.
But his successor, Rick Scott, a more conservative Republican, rewrote the rules in 2011, and made Florida perhaps the toughest state in the country for felons to regain their rights. Felons must wait an additional five to seven years after completing their sentence, which includes any parole and probation, before they’re eligible to apply to have their rights restored. Ex-offenders must be crime-free during those years, and the application is tedious. Now, some 12,000 are waiting in line.
The Post Editorial Board repeatedly has advocated that Florida join the rest of America and give second chances to felons who have totally served their sentences (excluding murderers and sex offenders).
And because everyone wants a safer society, the campaign for restoring rights should be a bipartisan one. The Florida Parole Commission found, in a 2011 study, that for felons who have their civil rights restored, the recidivism rate was 11 percent. The usual recidivism rate was 33 percent — three times as high.
Voting restoration will be Amendment 4 on November’s ballot. That’s a big step forward. Now the real work begins.