Apr. 10, 2007 – Floridaâ€™s recent voting-policy reforms have been lauded as a breakthrough for people previously barred from the polls due to criminal convictions. But some civil-liberties advocates argue the new re-enfranchisement process merely carves out more exceptions to a fundamentally unjust ban.
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The new rules, published last week by the governor-led Office of Executive Clemency, offer an expedited process for restoring voting rights to some people with criminal convictions. The rules also apply to the right to apply for occupational licenses, serve on a jury and hold public office.
Governor Charlie Crist declared the rule-changes a way to grant ex-offenders "a meaningful way to re-enter society."
While most states impose some restrictions on voting rights for people convicted of felonies, the Florida constitutionâ€™s disenfranchisement provisions are among the most severe, indefinitely banning hundreds of thousands from casting ballots even after completing their sentences.
Previously, exceptions were granted through individual reviews or hearings before the Clemency Board. For some lower-level offenders, exceptions came after a conditional waiting period.
According to the Florida Parole Commission, since 1999, the Board restored rights in about one-fifth of clemency applications processed.
The Clemency Officeâ€™s reforms purport to streamline re-enfranchisement for certain ex-felons, allowing faster approval under existing review procedures. Yet critics point to lingering bureaucratic impediments.
As under previous laws, re-enfranchisement still depends on completion of parole or other post-release supervision and payment of "restitution" related to the sentence. Some more-serious classes of convictions remain ineligible for expedited re-enfranchisement, including murder, some sex-related crimes, and "facilitating or furthering terrorism."
Civil-liberties groups argue that disenfranchisement laws, which expanded under post-Civil War segregationist policies, hinder reintegration of former prisoners into communities and disproportionately impact black and Latino populations due to their relatively high incarceration rates.
In 2000, an estimated more than 800,000 Florida residents were officially barred from the polls. That was about 7 percent of the stateâ€™s total voting-age population, including about 16 percent of blacks of voting age, according to a study by sociologists at Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota.
The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the reforms as too cumbersome, noting the Clemency Board must still review an ex-felonâ€™s record and issue a certificate for re-enfranchisement. The group is calling for a "paperless" re-enfranchisement process for people with felony convictions, regardless of the nature of the offense or whether restitution has been paid.
Muslima Lewis, director of the Racial Justice and Voting Rights projects of the Florida ACLU, challenged the governmentâ€™s assertion that the reforms bring "automatic" restoration of rights to some felons.
"Itâ€™s really important for folks to realize that it could have been different," she said. Had the governor simply issued an executive order authorizing immediate restoration of voting rights, Lewis said, former convicted felons could have registered to vote instantly, without prior clearance from the state.
Though the reforms may ease the process for restoring civil rights stripped by the government, Lewis added, "that permanent, lifetime voting ban is still in the state constitution, and in the long-term, thatâ€™s what really needs to be changed."