An Initiative to Give Ex-Felons Voting Rights Could Remake Florida’s Politics in 2020

Supporters of the Florida initiative think they have the signatures filed to get their constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Photo: Courtesy of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

In the vast arsenal of methods used over the years to suppress minority voting, one of the oldest is disenfranchisement of people with criminal records long after they’ve paid their debt to society. In the South, permanent ex-felon disenfranchisement was common in the immediate wake of slavery’s demise, and was used in combination with Black Codes criminalizing any exercise of personal freedom to restore as much white supremacy as was possible.

That’s why permanent disenfranchisement of ex-felons entered Florida’s Constitution in 1868. Even as most other states in the South and elsewhere abandoned such policies, Florida has retained this vestige of Jim Crow, making it one of just three states (the others are Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia) where acts of executive clemency are required to allow ex-felons to vote. And under current Republican governor Rick Scott, past broad exercises of such clemency have all but come to a halt, as the New York Times notes:

Gov. Rick Scott of Florida grants only 8 percent of the requests that come before the state’s clemency board, which he leads — for a total of only a few hundred people each year, even though there is a backlog of more than 10,000 petitions awaiting review.

Scott also instituted a waiting period of five years after a felon has completed his or her sentence before obtaining the right to petition the governor for a rare restoration of voting rights.

The impact of these policies has been enormous, particularly for Florida’s African-American population:

The ACLU and other groups believe that now some 1.5 million Floridians—about 10 percent of the adult citizen population—are voteless, some because they are still serving sentences, but most because of felony convictions in their past. Among African-American men in the state, the number is north of 20 percent.

That could change this year. Today the Florida Rights Restoration Initiative succeeded in securing the 766,000 certified signatures necessary to place a constitutional amendment on the November 2018 ballot automatically restoring voting rights for people who have served their sentences (with the exception of murderers and sex offenders).

A 60 percent “yes” vote will be needed to enact this proposal. Though there’s no publicly available Florida polling on ex-felon re-enfranchisement, a national Rasmussen survey in 2014 found that likely voters favored restoration of voting rights for felons who had completed their sentences by a robust 65–28 margin. Earlier national polling shows consistent majority support for re-enfranchisement, particularly when those who have committed heinous crimes are exempted (as is the case in Florida’s initiative).

The biggest threat to passage of FRRI is probably partisan polarization. Some prominent national Republicans have supported a general policy of ex-felon re-enfranchisement over the years, including Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, and George W. Bush, who have signed onto a coalition supporting restoration of voting rights. Indeed, Bush is significant insofar as he is one of the more notable beneficiaries of Florida’s ban on ex-felony voting; had even a small fraction of the estimated 600,000 disenfranchised voters — disproportionately African-Americans; according to one estimate black males are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated for a felony — been able to participate in the 2000 election, it would not have gone to overtime, much less to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It would not be surprising if Florida Republicans decided that ex-felon voting is an existential threat to their political power in the state, particularly when combined with this year’s enormous influx of Puerto Ricans who can immediately vote and who lean heavily Democratic. So the ballot initiative could become a bloody partisan issue in Florida this year along with red-hot gubernatorial and Senate races. If it passes, though, Florida and its 29 electoral votes will probably be a ripe target for whoever runs for president as a Democrat in 2020.

Florida Ballot Initiative Could Give Ex-Felons Voting Rights