Florida leads the nation in disenfranchising former felons

Niki Johnson, 35, a St. Pete College student and ex offender in her St. Petersburg apartment, Friday, Aug. 5, next to the St. Pete College Associate of Arts diploma she earned in May. She is continuing at St. Pete College to work toward a BA in Public Policy Administration and in October she is applying to have her rights restored. In 2013 she started Project Felons, an outreach program for felons. (CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times)
Niki Johnson, 35, a St. Pete College student and ex offender in her St. Petersburg apartment, Friday, Aug. 5, next to the St. Pete College Associate of Arts diploma she earned in May. She is continuing at St. Pete College to work toward a BA in Public Policy Administration and in October she is applying to have her rights restored. In 2013 she started Project Felons, an outreach program for felons. (CHERIE DIEZ | Times)
Published Aug. 15, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — For the more than 1.5 million Floridians prohibited from voting because they were convicted of a felony, election season reinforces how the state's voting laws don't apply equally to all.

"If I don't pay taxes, guess what? They're coming after me," says Pastor Greg James of Life Church International Center in Tallahassee. "But I can't vote, so it's taxation without representation."

James, convicted as a first-time offender on a charge of conspiracy to sell drugs, served 14 years in prison before he was released in 2008. He is one of several Florida pastors with a felony record who, despite having turned their lives around, are barred from voting because Florida has one of the most restrictive laws for restoring voting rights in the country.

While the issue of disenfranchised felons is often perceived as something that affects blacks disproportionately, data collected by the Sentencing project, a national nonprofit advocacy group, shows that three out of four Floridians who have lost their voting rights because of a felony conviction are white.

In the last six years, Florida has restored the voting rights of only 2,000 former felons. Another 10,463 men and women are on a growing waiting list, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. But hundreds of thousands like James, don't even bother to ask the state for permission to vote again.

This policy has an effect on Florida — and the nation's — politics.

In a 2002 study, university professors Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza concluded that if the state's former felons had been allowed to vote in Florida during the Bush-Gore presidential election in 2000 and turned out at a rate of 13 percent, another 31,000 votes could have been cast. Bush's 537-vote margin might have been different, and history might have been altered.

"It's pretty hard to argue that didn't have an impact on that election," said Darryl Paulson, a retired professor at the University of South Florida, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a Republican. Paulson says the issue "is 98 percent due to racial politics" but the "one size fits all policy hurts whites, too."

"Dems want to restore the felon vote because they think they will benefit; Republicans want to restrict felon voting because they believe they will be harmed," he said. "Most felons are non-violent and deserve to have their rights restored. Most felons in Florida are white, not black. If conservatives want to end recidivism and reintegrate felons into society, the restoration of voting rights is essential."

The last two elections for governor — both decided by a nearly 60,000-vote margin — also may have seen a different outcome, or a closer vote had more felons been allowed to vote.

"That is precisely why it's been so difficult to get Republican support for restoration of felon voting rights," said Paulson, who supports a change in Florida's restrictive laws. "It's not a partisan issue, but the Republican Party, which started as the good guys as the party of Lincoln, now look at black voters as a threat to Republican dominance in the state."

The Sentencing Project estimates that at least 5.8 million Americans are prohibited from voting because of laws that disenfranchise citizens convicted of felonies — and nearly one fourth of them, about 1.5 million, come from Florida. Among voting-age black voters in Florida, the estimates show that 23.3 percent are disenfranchised because of the prohibition on former felons.

The limitations on rights of felons is a vestige of a common law practice known as "civil death" brought to North America by the English colonists who restricted voting for criminal offenses considered morally egregious. After the American Revolution, states expanded the laws to include felony offenses as a way for wealthy elites to constrict the political power of the working classes, and after the Civil War, several Southern states, including Florida, used the disenfranchisement laws to block black males from voting.

Rights restoration practices vary from state to state but Florida is one of three states that permanently disenfranchise felons unless their right to vote is reinstated by a clemency process. The others are Iowa and Kentucky.

In 2007, under then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the Clemency Board voted to loosen the policy and allow for the automatic restoration of rights for people with a non-violent felony conviction. In the three years that followed, the rights of more than 155,000 people convicted of non-violent offenses were automatically restored.

Four years later, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi led the effort to reverse Crist's policy. They argued that felons shouldn't have access to the voting booth unless they can show they won't re-offend, that victims deserved to see their offenders punished after prison, and that murderers, rapists and other violent felons should be treated the most severely. The number of people who have had their rights restored plummeted to about 500 per year.

Now, a felon must wait at least five years after serving a sentence, probation and parole and completing restitution before applying to get rights restored. For felons whose record includes violent or sexual offenses or drug trafficking, the process requires a seven-year wait and a trip to Tallahassee for a personal appearance before the governor and Cabinet sitting as a Clemency Board.

Niki Johnson, 35, of St. Petersburg, is an ex-felon who believes in the power of second chances but bristles at the state's process.

Johnson was arrested multiple times between the ages of 19 and 29 for possessing marijuana, driving with a suspended license and passing bad checks.

After coming off probation in 2010, she enrolled at St. Petersburg College and, in May, received her associate of arts degree. She started Project Felons, an online resource tool that helps ex-offenders find the resources — clothing, housing and jobs — needed to integrate back into the community. And she is hoping to complete her bachelors degree in public policy to one day work in government.

"I'm not a violent criminal. I just was stupid and made the same repetitive silly choices," she said. Now, she is hoping to help others but "without civil rights, I couldn't run for city council or county commission. I can be barred from certain occupations or not allowed to move in certain subdivisions."

Johnson has not attempted to go through the rights restoration process because, she said, she was discouraged by watching other former felons go before the governor and Cabinet.

"It's very discouraging to sit in front of Rick Scott and Pam Bondi," she said. "They don't give you hope. I don't know if that is their plan, but I'm not losing hope."

Desmond Meade, 49, also is frustrated, but instead of giving up, he is taking on the system.

In June 2005, Meade had been released from prison after serving time for aggravated battery and possession of a firearm, was homeless and addicted to drugs.

"I was in Miami, standing in front of the railroad tracks waiting for a train to come so I could jump in front of it," he recalled. "As long as I waited, the train never came. I ended up crossing the tracks and checked myself into drug treatment."

Meade found housing at a local homeless shelter, enrolled at Miami-Dade College, graduated from Florida International University's College of Law.

But Meade can't practice law because he has not had his rights restored and the cumbersome process angers him.

The application is simple but the documentation can add an estimated 10 years to the process. It requires a applicant to obtain court documents for every offense they have been convicted of in every jurisdiction. They must answer a series of personal questions involving their family, their income, their drinking habits, and their work history, and they must provide three personal references.

Any legal infraction — as minor as a parking ticket — can prompt state investigators to reject the application and the clock resets with another two-year wait. Investigators can also reject an application without providing a reason. And for those rare few who clear these hurdles, only a handful of them get the chance to appear before the governor and Cabinet, serving as the Clemency Board, which meets only four times a year at the state Capitol.

"So if you're a poor guy in Dade County, barely making ends meet, and you have to take a day off work — which could result in being fired or not making enough to pay rent — what are you going to do?" Meade asks.

With the support of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Meade is working to change the law. He is president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a statewide advocacy organization gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution and allow Floridians with felony records — except those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses — to automatically have their voting rights restored after completing their prison sentence, parole or probation.

"My thinking was, we can get this changed sooner by advocating for change rather than accepting things as they are," Meade said.

The group, whose motto is "say Yes to second chances," has had 64,024 signatures verified, just short of the 68,300 needed to trigger a review of the language by the Florida Supreme Court. Their hope is to put it before voters on the 2018 or 2020 ballot.

Unlike Johnson and Meade, Ann Gordon has applied to have her rights restored but she is the one who now has lost hope.

Gordon, 68, was convicted of trafficking a kilo of cocaine in Palm Beach County in 1987. It was her only offense, and she served six years of a 15-year minimum sentence before being released in 1994.

"It was a very humbling experience, to say the least, because I do come from a very privileged background and had just about every advantage in life," Gordon said. "The felony conviction followed me. I was never able to get a decent job. I never thought to give voting a second thought until President Obama was running for office, and I thought, it would be nice to vote for a black president."

The Boston native had been out of prison for 13 years and had a clean record when she put her name on the list to have her rights restored in 2007. But the board didn't get to her application until June of this year and that's when they asked for more information: legal documents from her 30-year-old case, family history, employment records and letters of recommendations.

Gordon, who spent most of the last 25 years driving cabs and living alone in Delray Beach, couldn't produce it all.

"I've lost a lot of information from the hurricanes," she said. "I had to do an FDLE background check to get my license to drive a cab. I had to be fingerprinted and the only thing that's ever shown up is my charge for drug trafficking, and you're telling me that's not good enough to restore my rights?"

Gordon said she was told by the Office of Offender Review that she could just respond that she doesn't have the information, or can't find it.

"The whole thing is a contradiction," she said. "So ... I'm not dealing with it."

Gordon now has to send a rejection form to tell them she wants off the list — to make room for someone else — but she is resigned to the fact that she will never be voting.

"My health is terrible, and I'm not going to do it," she said. "At this point in my life it would be nice to vote but I didn't think I'd have to go through all this."

Restrictions on felons voting is just one of the two ways Florida legally disenfranchises voters.

The other is the process that undercuts the constitutional provision that allows all voters to vote in a primary election when there is no general election candidate. Because of the way the law is written, the process allows a write-in candidate to close a primary to all voters of one party, thereby disenfranchising voters of any other party in a district.

But unlike the write-in laws, which the Florida Legislature can revise to make less restrictive, the laws regulating ex-felons voting is controlled by the governor and Cabinet and the state Constitution. Any change in the rules requires the governor to be on the prevailing side.

In interviews with the Times/Herald, everyone but the governor said they are open to changes in the system they installed five years ago.

"If someone does an analysis, we have been granting civil rights to those who were waiting who would have automatically had their rights restored (under the previous system) and it's probably time for us to revisit,'' said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

"Having had some time and experience on the Clemency Board, I've come to believe that there are opportunities for improvement," said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Bondi said she was open to reducing the wait time to three years before an application may begin, but she does not support automatic restoration for non-violent felons.

"Serving your time, meant that you lost your rights," she said. "If you're going to have your rights restored, I want you to ask for them."

Scott, who is considered to be positioning himself for a run for the U.S. Senate in 2018, said through a spokesperson he does not support any changes.

Paulson, a Republican, concedes "it may require a change in political majorities to bring about change in the felon vote issue in Florida."

"This is all about doing the right thing," he said. "Although Republicans might suffer in the short term for making it easier for felons to have their voting rights restored, they would benefit in the long term by doing the right thing. ... This should be one issue both parties could unite on, but political reality blinds everyone."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.