Florida's felon vote: Destroying lives and wasting taxpayer dollars

Published Dec. 30, 2016

Editor's note: The political left and right seldom meet in the middle on anything anymore, but that is increasingly the case on the felon vote issue. Here, Martin Dyckman, former associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times and a liberal, joins forces with Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, to criticize Florida's felon vote policy. Paulson is a lifelong Republican and former fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Florida has what many consider to be the most rigid and unfair felony disenfranchisement law in the nation. The highly respected Sentencing Project declared in a recent report that "in 2010, more people are disenfranchised in Florida than in any other state and Florida's disenfranchisement remains highest among the 50 states." We are not thrilled that Florida leads the nation in denying more citizens of the right to vote than any other state.

How far out of line is Florida? In the United States as a whole, 1.77 percent of whites and 7.66 percent of blacks are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. In Florida, 10 percent of the voting age population (VAP) is disenfranchised, but 23 percent — or almost one out of four black voters — is disenfranchised. Nationally, about 6 million individuals have lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction; about 1.7 million or 27 percent of all those disenfranchised reside in Florida.

The felon vote was part of a package of legislation designed to cope with the emergence of black voter majorities throughout the South after the Civil War. In 1867, 15,434 of Florida's 25,582 registered voters were black, something that Florida's white voters were unwilling to accept. In fact, it was not until after the Civil War that Florida banned all voters with a felony conviction.

At the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops that had been protecting blacks, every Southern state drafted new state constitutions and passed laws designed to eliminate the black voter. Florida was the first state in the nation to adopt the poll tax in 1889. Florida raised about a dozen barriers to black voting, including the white primary, long residency requirements, the eight-ballot box law and the felon vote. This effort was highly successful for, within a decade, most black voters were removed from the voting rolls. By the end of the 19th century, not a single black held any state legislative seat even though blacks were nearly half of Florida's population.

Supporters of the felony disenfranchisement laws argue that it was race neutral and applied equally to blacks and whites. But an examination of the states adopting felony disenfranchisement laws demonstrated a clear racial intent behind the law. At Alabama's 1901 constitutional convention, one delegate stated that "the crime of wife beating alone would disqualify 60 percent of Negroes." At the 1906 Virginia constitutional convention, state Sen. Carter Glass contended that the law "would eliminate the darkey as a political factor in less than five years." The end result, said Glass, "will be the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government."

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Even though Florida's long history of black voter suppression was clear, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Johnson vs. Bush (2005), overturned a panel that ruled against Florida. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case on appeal.

In the criminal justice system in Florida, it is hard to argue that race has not been a factor. How do you explain the fact that blacks are 16 percent of the state's population but comprise 48 percent of the prisoners?

A Sarasota Herald Tribune study, "Bias on the Bench," found that blacks get sentenced to more time in jail than whites for the same crime under the same circumstances. Blacks were found to have fewer chances to avoid jail or scrub the felony away. Trial court judges are tougher on black drug offenders at every step of the way, and half of the counties in Florida sentenced blacks to more than double the time of whites.

In Pinellas County, blacks charged with felony drug possession received 93 percent more time than whites. The investigation found a lack of racial diversity among trial judges. Although 16 percent of the state's population, blacks make up only 7 percent of trial judges. Finally, white judges, on average, sentenced black defendants to 20 percent more time for a third-degree felony than whites.

Some argue that although racism may have been part of Florida's distant past, it is no longer evident in modern Florida. If this is the case, why did the 1965 Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) not contain any minority member? There was also not a single black in the Legislature at that time.

The Brennan Center for Justice found that eight of the 37 members of the CRC served on the infamous Johns Committee, best known for its attacks on civil rights organizations and Florida's public universities. The Johns Committee came within one vote on the U.S. Supreme Court of effectively abolishing the Florida NAACP.

Richard Pettigrew, a member of the Legislature and the 1965 CRC, attempted to modify the constitutional ban to let the Legislature determine which crimes, if any, should disqualify a voter. His proposal was defeated in committee. Neither the 1978 or 1998 CRC took up the issue. "I am embarrassed to say that this was not discussed," Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, who chaired the 1978 commission, wrote to Dyckman.

In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet revised the rules and made it easier for ex-felons to seek restoration of their civil rights. In the four years of the Crist administration, 155,000 individuals had their civil rights restored.

In 2011, newly elected Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, along with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, revised the changes that had been made by Crist and the Cabinet. They instituted a five-year waiting period after the completion of their sentences and probation before nonviolent felons could apply for the restoration of their civil rights. Violent felons had to wait seven years. On top of that, the average waiting time to have your case heard is nine years. This means nonviolent felons must wait at least 14 years after completing their sentences to even have their cases heard.

The end result of these changes was that only 2,339 citizens had their rights restored in the first 5½ years of the Scott administration. There is currently a backlog of 12,000 cases, which means that it will take decades to review those cases already filed. This does not count the hundreds of thousands of cases that have not been filed because too many people are discouraged by the waiting period and the little chance they will have to have their case reviewed.

What Scott and the Cabinet did could be said — borrowing a phrase from a federal court ruling in the recent North Carolina voter suppression case — to target black voters "with almost surgical precision." It appears to be such a striking violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as to provide grounds for another test case against disenfranchisement in Florida. The 11th Circuit is owed a chance to atone for its mistake in Johnson vs. Bush, much like the Supreme Court did in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in unanimously repudiating the Plessy case's erroneous support of the "separate but equal" doctrine, at least as it pertained to public schools.

Only two other states besides Florida impose a lifetime ban on felon voting unless you seek the restoration of your rights. Between 2011 and 2016, 93 percent of the appeals for restoration in Iowa were approved. In Kentucky, 86 percent of appeals were approved. In Florida, only 8 percent of appeals were approved. We are not sure how anyone can view this as a source of pride.

Supporters of the felon vote policy raise two primary points. First, they argue that these individuals are felons and, as such, have forfeited their voting rights. If you can't obey the laws, you should have no voice in making the laws.

Those who support the restoration of voting rights point out that most of these felons have not committed violent crimes and that in many other states, what is a felony in Florida is a misdemeanor in other states. Only one quarter of Florida felons serve prison time; the others are not perceived as threats to society.

Floridians have been arrested and convicted of the following felonies: driving with a suspended driver's license, disturbing eggs of nesting turtles, catching lobsters with tails too short, burning a fire in public, walking through a posted construction site, and launching helium balloons into the air. Although illegal in Florida, do these infractions merit losing the right to vote for a lifetime?

A second criticism of the drive to restore voting rights to ex-felons is that it is really an attempt by Democrats to benefit themselves politically. It is true that ex-felons register as Democrat over Republican by a five-to-one ratio. It is also true that only one-third of ex-felons register to vote, and only about 20 percent actually vote. The impact is small, but it could be the margin of difference in a close election.

Will Democrats support felon vote restoration because they believe they will benefit politically? Some certainly will. Will Republicans oppose felon vote restoration because they believe Democrats will benefit? Many will oppose it for that reason.

Both parties argue that public policy should be made if the public benefits. We believe that the restoration of civil rights has positive benefits for the state of Florida. The Florida Parole Commission, in the largest national study on the issue, found that the recidivism rate for ex-felons who had their civil rights restored was 11 percent, compared to a 33 percent rate for those who did not have their rights restored.

Less recidivism means fewer prisons are needed and fewer staff need to be hired. This will save the state of Florida a good deal of money that has been coming out if the pockets of Florida taxpayers. Because of this and other benefits of felon vote restoration, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, not exactly a group of flaming liberals, has also supported the restoration of civil rights to ex-felons.

A felony conviction prevents individuals from holding many good-paying jobs, including many government jobs at all levels. Many highly trained and skilled individuals have been denied the right to support themselves and their family because they sold a few ounces of marijuana in their youth. That policy benefits no one.

Americans have identified themselves as a redemptive and forgiving society. Scott and the Cabinet, serving as the Florida Clemency Board, are playing God by demanding that felons not only must serve their sentences before applying for restoration of their civil rights, but also they must wait an average of 14 years to have their case heard. In the Scriptures, Jesus did not tell the thief on the adjoining cross to wait 14 years before seeking forgiveness. Christ said, "This day, you shall enter heaven."

Would those who are adamantly opposed to the restoration of civil rights feel the same way if it was their son or daughter who was convicted of a nonviolent felony and were stripped of their voting rights for a lifetime? We expect not.

We are not talking about murderers, rapists, terrorists or other violent criminals. We would not be concerned if most of those individuals never voted again. But for the individual who sold a few ounces of marijuana in high school or college, for the husband who launched helium balloons to honor his wife, and to the thousands of others who committed nonviolent crimes for which they are now paying a lifetime penalty, we say, "Let our people go."

The scope of their crime does not fit the punishment. As Ion Sancho, Leon County's retiring supervisor of elections and his Broward counterpart, Dr. Brenda Snipes, have stated, "The scope of felony disenfranchisement does not fit our great democracy. People who have completed their sentences and re-entered society are presumably working and paying taxes in communities throughout the state. These individuals, like other Floridians, should be accorded the basic rights of citizenship."

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times now living in North Carolina. Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.