Column: Reject effort to restore voting rights for most felons

Richard A. Harrison
Richard A. Harrison
Published Aug. 31, 2017

There's a movement brewing in Florida to hand convicted felons new voter registration cards on the way out the door of the prison when their sentences are completed.

The proposed constitutional amendment is being packaged and sold as a feel-good measure to give people a "second chance" in the hope Floridians won't look too hard at what it's really about. It's also being misrepresented as a proposal to restore voting rights to non-violent felons, when it would automatically grant voting rights to all sorts of violent criminals. Supporters are gathering petition signatures in the hope of getting this issue on the 2018 ballot.

Under the Florida Constitution, one of the many serious consequences of being convicted of a felony is that the right to vote is forfeited. A felon who completes his sentence can apply to the governor and Cabinet, acting as the Clemency Board, to have the right to vote restored. The Clemency Board considers applications on a case-by-case basis under rules that have been legally adopted and are publicly available. There's a waiting period before a felon can apply, and the process of considering applications on a case-by-case basis is thoughtful and time-consuming. The process looks carefully at the felon's conduct since being released. Historically, a decision to restore voting rights is the exception rather than the rule. That's as it should be.

The proposed amendment would be an end run around the Clemency Board and automatically restore voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences. It would apply to all felonies except murder or sexual crimes. It would also operate without regard to the seriousness of the crime, the severity of harm to the victims, or any of the other factors that one might reasonably want to consider before granting a convicted felon that "second chance."

That's the critical flaw in the proposed constitutional amendment. Other than murder and sexual felonies, it treats all other felonies as though they were the same. It's a blanket, automatic restoration of voting rights. If it gets on the ballot, your only choice will be an all or nothing, yes or no vote on the amendment. If it passes, neither you nor anyone else will ever be allowed to consider the specifics of the crime or the post-release history of the criminal before that new voter registration card is issued.

That just doesn't make much sense.

All felonies, by definition, are serious crimes. The folks pushing to change the law like to talk about what they consider less serious crimes. Driving with a suspended license (which isn't even a felony unless you've been convicted three times) and the rarely prosecuted crime of disturbing a lobster trap are their favorite examples.

They don't want to talk about the abusive husband who beats his wife so badly that she ends up in the hospital with cracked ribs and a broken jaw, or the armed robber who shoots a convenience store clerk, or the gang member that carjacks an elderly man at gunpoint. The list of violent felonies covered by the proposed amendment is long and frightening. There might be an argument to be made for treating non-violent felons more leniently than violent criminals, or for treating first-time offenders differently than career criminals. But a blanket restoration of voting rights to nearly all felons, without considering the circumstances of each case, is just bad policy.

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This ill-conceived proposal also ignores historical recidivism data. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, 26 to 33 percent of released felons will return to prison within three years. Does it make sense to automatically restore the right to vote when many released felons will be right back in prison within three years?

More than one major newspaper in Florida has reported that the proposed amendment would restore voting rights to "non-violent felons." That statement is literally true, but it's grossly misleading. Is it fair to report that this proposal applies to non-violent felons, without mentioning that it also covers violent criminals? Isn't that an important part of the story?

By all means, let's have a full and open debate on the issue. But let's have an honest debate about what this amendment would really do, shall we? Above all, make sure you know what you're being asked to sign when somebody at the mall or the stadium sticks a clipboard in your face and asks you to give violent felons that "second chance."

Richard Harrison is the executive director of Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and informing the public about voting rights issues in Florida. He is a lawyer based in Tampa.