More than 1.2 million Floridians are barred from voting because of a prior felony conviction — even though they have completed their sentences. That includes thousands — probably tens of thousands — of military veterans who have served our country.
Each year about 60,000 people in Florida finish their prison sentences or probation. In recent years, at least 6 percent (approximately 3,600 Floridians) were military veterans. In the past, the percentage of veterans in Florida prisons was even higher — 8 percent in 2007; 11 percent in 1997.
In 1978, according to the Justice Department, 24 percent of prison inmates nationwide were military veterans. That was in the wake of the Vietnam War, at a time when the nation experienced a sharp increase in illegal drug use. For many of the veterans who fell afoul of the law, it was on drug charges. That holds true today.
Many veterans endure repeated combat tours, risking their lives, seeing friends killed or wounded. They often struggle with the lasting effects of their service. In recent years, the Florida Supreme Court has responded by encouraging the creation of special Veterans Courts to help vets who have committed nonviolent crimes such as drug offenses avoid prison.
"Some veterans returning home from war find it difficult to integrate back into the community," the Supreme Court said. "Veterans with untreated substance abuse or mental health illnesses, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), may find it even harder to return home, which can sometimes lead to criminal activity."
The high rate of suicides among veterans is another sad indicator of the challenges facing returning vets.
Before the Veterans Courts, many more veterans were imprisoned. Many of those who have been released from prison and probation have never regained their voting rights.
Almost all states restore the voting rights of people who successfully complete their sentences. Florida is one of only four states that, by their constitutions, mandate lifetime disfranchisement and require all persons convicted of felonies to petition state officials for clemency to have their voting rights restored.
The Florida Constitution gives state officials — partisan politicians — unfettered power to determine who is granted clemency and who is not. The constitutional language defining that power was rewritten in 1868, in order to keep freed black slaves from voting. Today, at least 30 percent of the disenfranchised in Florida are black, even though blacks make up only about 15 percent of Florida's adult population.
Under new rules adopted in 2011 by the administration of Gov. Rick Scott, former felons must now wait five to seven years after they complete their sentences to even apply for restoration of voting rights — depending on the crime. They are then placed on a waiting list to have their cases reviewed by the Florida Board of Executive Clemency — consisting of the governor and three Cabinet members. The board meets only four times per year, usually for one day, so it often takes years for cases to be heard.
In the four years Charlie Crist served as Florida governor, from 2007-11, some 155,000 people regained their right to vote. In almost seven years under the Cabinet led by Gov. Scott through Oct. 7 this year, only 2,807 people had their rights restored.
We are a nation that believes in giving people who have made mistakes an opportunity for redemption. I have a particular interest in redemption for my fellow veterans, but I also believe that, as a matter of simple fairness, everyone who has paid their debt — by completing a prison sentence and probation — has earned the chance to be a full member of their community, including the right to vote.
To that end, the ACLU and our partners in Floridians for a Fair Democracy hope to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2018 ballot. It would restore the voting rights of all who complete their sentences, except for those convicted of murderer or a felony sex offense.
U.S. veterans defended our democracy, and the cornerstone of that democracy is the right to vote. We should be defending that right here in Florida as well. And politicians should not be telling veterans they can't vote.
Col. Mike Pheneger, retired, is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer. He is also a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.