More than 1.2 million Floridians are barred from voting because of a prior felony conviction — even though they have completed their sentence. That includes thousands of military veterans who have served our country.
Each year about 60,000 Floridians finish their prison sentences or probation. In recent years, about 6 percent (approximately 3,600) were veterans. In the past, the percentage was higher – 8 percent in 2007; 11 percent in 1997. In 1978, in the wake of the Vietnam War, the national figure was 24 percent.
Many veterans have been convicted on drug charges. They often endure repeated combat tours, risking their lives, seeing friends killed or wounded. They struggle with the lasting effects of war. In recent years, Florida created special Veterans Courts to help vets who commit non-violent crimes, such as drug offenses, avoid prison.
“Veterans with untreated substance abuse or mental health illnesses, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), may find it even harder to return home, which can sometimes lead to criminal activity,” the Florida Supreme Court said.
The high rate of suicides among veterans is another indicator of the challenges.
Many veterans who completed their sentences over the years have never regained their voting rights.
Almost all states restore voting rights to those who complete their sentences. Florida is one of only three states that require persons convicted of felonies to petition state officials individually for restoration of their rights.
That process was written into the Florida Constitution in 1868, to keep freed black slaves from voting. Today, at least 30 percent of the disenfranchised in Florida are black, even though blacks comprise only about 15 percent of Florida’s adult population.
Currently, under rules adopted by Gov. Rick Scott, former felons must wait five to seven years after completing their sentences to even apply for rights restoration — depending on the crime. They join a waiting list and it usually takes years to appear before the four-person Florida Board of Executive Clemency – led by the governor.
From 2007 to 2011, then-Gov. Charlie Crist returned voting rights to 155,000 persons. Since 2011, under Scott, only 2,807 people had their rights restored.
Americans believe in redemption. I believe, in particular, in redemption for my fellow veterans, but I also believe everyone who has paid their debt to society deserves the right to vote.
Veterans have defended that right against foreign enemies. We should be defending it here in Florida as well. And politicians should not be telling veterans they can’t vote.
The coalition Floridians for a Fair Democracy is conducting a petition campaign to place a Constitutional amendment on the November 2018 ballot. It would restore the voting rights of all who complete their sentences, except murderers and felony sex offenders.
MIKE PHENEGER, TAMPA
Editor’s note: Col. Mike Pheneger (retired) is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer. He is also a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida.