Why the restoration of felons’ voting rights in Florida is a big deal

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THE MID-TERM elections in Florida featured some momentous races, including razor’s-edge counts in the Senate and governor’s contests. But another important measure on the ballot on November 6th drew the support of nearly 65% of Florida voters: an amendment to the state constitution lifting a permanent ban on voting by anyone with a criminal record. Amendment 4 restores voting rights to approximately 1.4m whose crimes have kept them away from the polls after they have served their sentences. The move means that the potential electorate in Florida will grow by about 10%, including more than 400,000 re-enfranchised African Americans. Because formerly incarcerated people tend to vote for Democratic candidates, the move could prove helpful to the party in close races. 

Before November 6th, Florida was one of just three states to impose a lifetime ban on felons exercising the franchise. With the passage of Amendment 4, Iowa and Kentucky are now the sole remaining states to do so. (Virginia’s constitution includes an indefinite ban, too, but Democratic governors have taken action to circumvent it.) For felons in Florida, gaining the franchise has been an onerous endeavour. After finishing their stints in prison, on parole and on probation, they have had to wait at least five years before applying for a restoration of their civil rights, including the right to serve on juries. The clemency board, comprised of the governor and three cabinet members, heard requests just four times a year. Governor Rick Scott—who may head to Washington to serve in the Senate after a recount in his race with Bill Nelson—has emphasised at these quarterly hearings that the board has complete discretion over whether to restore felons’ rights. “There’s no standard”, he told one unsuccessful applicant in 2016. “We can do whatever we want.” Another board member has regularly asked applicants if they are church-goers.

On January 8th, this protocol will be retired in favour of automatic enfranchisement for all criminals who have completed their sentences—except for those convicted of murder or sex offences. The change puts an end to litigation over Florida’s harsh stance, which was deemed unconstitutional by a federal district judge in March because it hinged on clemency board members’ “whims, passing emotions or perceptions”. Governor Scott appealed this hearing to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the case in July but had not released a ruling prior to the election. The suit is now moot.

The restriction on the franchise that Amendment 4 lifts is far-reaching. “Nearly one-quarter of the entire disenfranchised population” in America, says Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice organisation, “will now have the right to vote and will no longer be treated as second-class citizens”. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida hailed the change as “remov[ing] an ugly stain that has been in our state’s constitution since the Civil War era”, when fear of black voters led the drive to keep felons away from the voting booth. The ACLU described the move as the single biggest expansion of voting rights since the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, when 18-year-olds won the franchise. 

Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Centre at Stanford Law School, said the push for the amendment started as a grassroots movement of formerly incarcerated people. Its appeal quickly broadened. In addition to the ACLU, the campaign for Amendment 4 was joined by the Christian Coalition of America, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops and Tampa Bay Young Republicans. The Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, funded by the Koch brothers, prominent Republican donors, also backed it. 

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University, attributes this cross-ideological support to both “religious beliefs in redemption” and a desire to erase a blight on representative democracy. There may be tangible benefits, too. In 2012, Guy Padraic Hamilton-Smith and Matt Vogel cited evidence that disenfranchised felons are more likely to commit future crimes. Stripping people of the right to vote is a “vestige” of a more unequal era, Messrs Hamilton-Smith and Vogel argued. It creates a “permanent criminal underclass of outcasts” that navigates a revolving door through the criminal-justice system. Recidivism may be expensive, too. A study cited by advocates of Amendment 4 found that giving felons the right to vote would help fold them back into the “fabric of Florida’s civic and economic life” and represent a boost of $365m a year in lower prison costs and higher productivity.

It remains to be seen how many newly enfranchised felons will register to vote, how many on the rolls will show up on Election Day and which candidates they will support. But with Florida’s most significant races sometimes decided by around a percentage point or less—and the 2000 presidential election settled by a mere 537 votes—the state’s new voters could certainly make their voices heard. 

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