The right to vote rests at the core of our democracy. Denying this right is to deny a fundamental freedom of expression – having a voice in the governance and direction of our society.
All but four states in the U.S. have recognized that former felons, those who have paid their debts to society, should not be constitutionally denied this fundamental right. Two of the exceptions are Florida and Virginia, states we led as chief executives.
According to 2016 figures from the Sentencing Project, 7.8 percent of voting age citizens in Virginia were disenfranchised due to this ban; in Florida, it was an even higher 10.4 percent. Even more troubling is the disproportionate impact on the voting rights of African Americans, with disenfranchisement rates of 21 percent in Florida and 22 percent in Virginia.
During our campaigns for governor of our respective states, we vowed to end this discriminatory vestige of the old Jim Crow system. It was about fairness, forgiveness, and doing what is morally right.
As then-Republican governor of Florida in 2007, over the objections of the Republican-controlled Legislature, we created a streamlined process by which 155,315 Floridians saw their voting rights restored within a four-year period. In 2017, that record number was surpassed when 173,166 Virginians were granted clemency through a governor-led process, after the Republican-led General Assembly blocked broader clemency reform.
While neither of our administrations got everything we wanted, we didn't let the opposition stop us from making historic progress. But our policies were just temporary fixes, their fate depending solely on the values and actions of our successors. Virginia has been fortunate, with Gov. Ralph Northam building on this progress. But in Florida, the converse has been on display in dramatic fashion. Gov. Rick Scott undermined all the progress that was made, setting up roadblocks that have slowed the clemency process to a crawl – to the point where his actions have been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.
What's needed in Florida and Virginia is a permanent solution – an amendment to our respective state constitutions.
Florida is up to bat on this issue, one step away from getting it done Nov.6. That's when Amendment 4 will be on the ballot, a measure that got there by virtue of over 800,000 citizens' signatures. Amendment 4 would change the state Constitution to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who have competed their sentences, including parole and probation, and did not commit murder or a felony sex crime. To pass, it needs 60 percent support from the electorate.
Currently, 1.7 million Floridians are disenfranchised and thus silenced at the voting booth. This November, Floridians have the power to give their fellow citizens a second chance, and to strengthen our democracy.
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U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, served as Republican governor of Florida from 2007 to 2011. Terry McAuliffe served as Democratic governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018 and is a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University.