In 2011, we saw a triple play of voter suppression with redistricting, HB 1355 (dubbed the Voter Suppression Act), and regressive changes to Florida’s Clemency Rules. The Florida legislature is accountable for the first two and to their credit, they did try to fix some of the mess that they created. But, Florida is not off the hook yet with disenfranchisement.
It saddens me to say that Florida ranks high on the list of states that disenfranchise individuals indefinitely after they have returned to the community. And as a result, our state’s denial of voting rights for people with past felony convictions is about to go under the international human rights microscope.
In 2011, the Clemency Board consisting of Governor Scott, Pam Bondi, Jeff Atwater, and Adam Putnam foolishly decided that it is not enough that returning citizens face major challenges when they are released from prison, they decided to make it harder for them to get their civil rights restored and thereby harder to fully participate in the democratic process. Now, a returning citizen must wait five to seven years to apply to get their civil rights restored. That’s not all; it can take an additional two to five years for applications to be processed! In the meantime, they have lost their most basic right in our democracy – the right to vote.
There are many collateral consequences for individuals who have a past felony conviction. They lose certain occupational licenses, they often can’t get housing, get governmental loans, or get a job. This is a recipe for despair recidivism – desperate people returning to crime because our society has closed off all other options to them. The impact ripples out to encompass their family and community.
There are 5.85 million individuals who are disenfranchised nationally because of past felony convictions. Among those are over 1.54 million Floridians. These are people who are unable to vote because when you commit a felony in Florida, you lose your civil rights: the right to vote, to run for office and to serve on a jury. You heard right: over 1.54 million. This is a human rights violation.
There is another dimension to the problem of disenfranchisement in Florida: African Americans are disproportionately impacted. 23% of African Americans of voting age – nearly one in four -- have lost the right to vote. Here is how Florida ranks relative to other poorly performing states: Florida (23%), Kentucky (22%), and Virginia (20%).
This human rights violation is about to make Florida – and the entire nation – face serious international scrutiny. This month, the U.S. was scheduled to appear before the U.N. Human Rights Committee to review whether or not our country is in compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an international human rights treaty. I was asked to travel to Geneva to speak before the committee and report on Florida’s disfranchisement of people with past felony convictions and how the problem was exacerbated by the Scott administration’s 2011 actions.
Because of the federal government shutdown this month, the review was rescheduled for March 2014. It is not too late for the Clemency Board to right a major wrong for its citizens and keep voting rights in Florida from becoming an international embarrassment for the United States.
Recently, Virginia moved in the right direction to re-enfranchise Virginians who had their civil rights taken away by a similar process. It is long overdue for Florida to support reintegration of returning citizens by restoring their civil rights.
If I had gone to Geneva for the U.S.’s ICCPR review, I would have said all of this and more. I wish that I could report otherwise. And now, the unexpected delay has given our state more time to right this wrong. Join me in telling Florida’s Clemency Board that they must release the vote!