- Despite record voter turnout, 6 million Americans were unable to vote in the 2018 midterm elections because of a previous felony conviction.
- In Florida, which had one of the strictest laws in the country, one in 10 voting-age adults and almost one in four African-American adults were barred from voting for life because of a previous felony conviction.
- Florida voters passed a referendum, Amendment 4, which added an amendment to Florida’s constitution automatically restoring voting and civil rights to people convicted of most felonies after the completion of their sentences.
- Floridians with felony convictions are able to begin registering to vote in January 2019.
While millions of Americans across the country set records for high voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections in November, approximately 6 million Americans were legally barred from voting because they hold felony convictions.
But on Election Day, the state with the highest rate of felon disenfranchisement overturned the longstanding practice, and Florida residents with felony convictions are now beginning to register to vote.
Florida voters passed Amendment 4, giving 1.5 million citizens with felony convictions in the state the right to vote, except those convicted of murder and felony sex crimes.
Florida election officials are now in the process of implementing the new amendment, which allows people with felony convictions who have served out the full terms of their prison sentence, probation, and parole, to exercise their right to vote.
Dating back to skyrocketing incarceration rates beginning in the 1970s with the start of the War on Drugs, the number of people disenfranchised from a criminal conviction has jumped from 1.2 million people in 1970, to 6.1 million today.
Nearly every state restricts the rights of people with felony convictions to vote in some way.
While most of those states automatically restore the civil rights of felons upon their release from prison or after completion of parole or probation, some permanently disenfranchise those convicted of serious crimes (like Nevada and Arizona) or election-related offenses (like in Missouri).
In Florida, which disenfranchised felons for life, a staggering 1.5 million voting-age residents, and 23% of African-American adults could not vote due to a previous felony conviction.
Rob Scott, director of the Cornell University Prison Education Program, told Business Insider that while the amendment technically applies to all 1.5 million people with felony convictions, he estimates that since around 400,000 are currently in jail or on probation/parole and 100,000 have murder or felony sex crimes, about 1 million would gain their right to vote back immediately.
Iowa and Kentucky are other states that still disenfranchise felons for life. Not only do those people permanently lose their right to vote, but also the right to serve on a jury of their peers, run for office, own a firearm, or obtain a professional licence – unless they receive clemency from the governor.
Because the clemency process is entirely up to the executive branch and not the legislature, procedures in Florida had varied drastically depending on who the governor was. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush granted clemency to about one-fifth of the385,522 applicants for clemency from 1997 to 2007.
When Democratic Gov. Charlie Crist took office in 2007, he overhauled the clemency system, automatically restoring voting rights to non-violent offenders upon the completion of their sentences and putting violent ones into a review process. While Crist was Governor from 2007 to 2011, 150,000 people with felony convictions regained their civil rights.
But when Republican Gov. Rick Scott came into power, he made the rules for receiving clemency stricter than ever before, and only granted clemency to 3,000 applicants in eight years, leading the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to estimate that the current backlog of clemency applications will take decades to clear up.
Crist, now a member of Congress representing Florida’s 13th district, accompanied residents with felony convictions to the St. Petersburg Supervisor of Elections Office to help them register to vote on Tuesday.
What will change in Florida
In Florida, a person with a felony conviction had to wait 5 years before applying for clemency to regain their civil rights. The 5-year waiting period re-started if they were arrested anytime within it, even if no charges were filed.
After the waiting period, the application, and sometimes a hearing, a person could be denied restoration with no justification, and had to wait another two years before applying again. A federal judge recently ruled that the current system of clemency under Scott was unconstitutional, and the state had to reform it to be less arbitrary and set out clearer criteria for receiving clemency.
But this Election Day, voters decided that all of that should change.
Floridians who could vote on Tuesday passed the ballot referendum Amendment 4 – enacting a state constitutional amendment automatically restoring voting rights to most felons after completion of their sentences.
The issue had gotten more and more attention in the media since the referendum made it on the ballot. An average of three polls conducted before Election Day showed that 66% of those polled supported the amendment, while 25% opposed it, and 8% were undecided.
Florida’s decision is the single largest granting of voting rights since the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution extended the right to vote to women in 1920.
“Enfranchising a million voters is nothing small,” Scott said. “It is a big deal and a shift in American criminal justice policy thinking in relation to the concept of rehabilitation and second chances.”
But he also warned that despite this historic enfranchisement, politicians in Florida may now pass new laws intended to increase the number of people on probation and parole-and thus unable to vote under Amendment 4.
“The next thing is to ask whether the Republican controlled [Florida] house will encourage them to vote, or whether there will be statutes passed to expand parole and probation in order to disenfranchise the newly enfranchised voters,” Scott added.