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Florida's Felon Disenfranchisement Law Under Spotlight

by David M. Reutter

Since the 2000 presidential election, Florida's voting laws have been under scrutiny. One of the issues being debated is Florida's constitutional provision that permanently disenfranchises felons.

When Florida gave blacks the right to vote as a condition of the state being readmitted to the Union after the Civil War, the 1868 State Constitution expanded the number of crimes that required disenfranchisement.

Before the 2000 election, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the disenfranchisement law. The suit contends that, despite inclusion in the State's 1868 Constitution, the ban has a discriminatory intent to affect blacks. Another lawsuit filed by the Florida Conference of Black Legislators led to a court orders requiring the Florida Department of Corrections to assist 125,000 felons, who had finished their sentences, apply for their voting rights. [Editor's Note: In mid July, 2004, a state appeals court reinstated portions of the suit. PLN will report he ruling in an upcoming issue.]

A 2001 report by a University of Minnesota sociologist counted more than 600,000 disenfranchised felons in Florida, not including those still in prison, on probation, or on parole. Moreover, more than one in four of Florida's black men cannot vote, the report found.

Florida's disenfranchisement law may have affected the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. An unknown number of Florida votes were removed from the voter rolls after they were mistakenly identified as felons. Some counties mistakenly allowed actual felons to vote or turned away legitimate voters as suspected felons. See: PLN, May 2001, p. 22.

To get their voting rights back, Florida felons must apply to the Clemency Board, which consists of the Governor and three cabinet members. While some crimes result in automatic restoration, crimes including convicted drug traffickers, sex offenders, violent offenders, and those guilty of public corruption must go through an investigation and wait for a hearing, which can take years.

Many felons seek restoration because they cannot receive certain state issued professional licenses _ nursing or contracting, for example _ unless their civil rights are restored.

Once the application is filed, the Florida Parole Commission recommends, before the hearing, whether the application should be accepted, basing that decision partly on investigations that might include interviews with employees, neighbors, and victims. The recommendation is not always followed.

At the March 18, 2004, hearings, a roomful of applicants fidgeted, prayed, hushed children, or polished their written statements. As he looked over the room, Gov. Jeb Bush said, "Don't be nervous, we're not mean people. You can speak from the heart."

One by one, the disenfranchised, who have finished their sentences, pleaded with Governor Bush and his cabinet to restore their civil rights. The Board considered 57 voter rights cases.

Governor Bush would leaf through each applicant's file and begin questioning the applicant. "How's the anger situation going?" Bush asked one applicant. Another was asked, "You've stayed clean?" Over the course of the morning, Board members interrogated former drug and alcohol abusers about their sobriety. The Board had intolerance for multiple traffic violations, domestic violence records, or blame passing.

After restoring the rights of Cecil Taylor, who had been convicted of drunk driving, Bush said, "I'm praying that you're not going to start drinking again. When we make these decision, sometimes it puts us in a little bit of a precarious position in that you could let us down."

Of the 57 applications before the Board, 23 had rights restored, 30 were denied, and 4 had their decisions delayed.

"Why should we keep people from voting after we spent all the money rehabilitating them?" Representative Kendrick B. Meek, a Miami Democrat said. "Why stand in judgment on whether they should vote or not? This is politicians standing up and playing the role of virtucrat."

Only Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote even while they are in prison. Besides Florida, only Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Virginia automatically disenfranchise felons' voting rights.

Source: New York Times

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