Felon disenfranchisement in Florida
This article needs to be updated.November 2018)(
In the U.S. state of Florida, people convicted of a felony lose their right to vote during their incarceration. Prior to January 8, 2019, felons effectively lost their right to vote for life, as it could only be restored by action of the governor, which rarely occurred. However, during the November 6, 2018 election, Floridians voted 65% in favor of Amendment 4 to allow people convicted of a felony -- except murder or sexual abuse -- to regain their voting rights after the completion of their sentences. Previously, Florida had been one of four remaining states that maintained the lifetime ban.
Felony disenfranchisement in Florida began with the 1838 ratification of the state constitution. Article VI Section 13 of the original state constitution states, “laws shall be made by the General Assembly, to exclude from office, and from suffrage, those who shall have been or may thereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crime, or misdemeanor.” This law took effect in 1845 when Florida became a U.S. state and remained largely intact despite notable wording changes in 1868 and 1968 until 2007.
During the 1868 state constitutional convention, Florida largely overhauled its constitution: A small expansion of the felon voting section was changed to say, “nor shall any person convicted of felony be qualified to vote at any election unless restored to civil rights… the Legislature shall have power and shall enact the necessary laws to exclude from every office of honor, power, trust, or profit, civil or military, within the State, and from the right of suffrage, all persons convicted of bribery, perjury, larceny, or of infamous crime.” Although minor, this rewrite marks the first instance of the word “felony” in official documents to describe actions that warrant exclusion from voting rights.
There were no reform efforts of note nor any changes to the felon voting section of the constitution until 1968, where the section was simplified to include only felonies as reasons to ban criminals from voting; bribery, perjury, larceny, and infamous crimes were struck. This version of the law would stand until 2007.
In 1974, the Florida Legislature passed a bill that would allow felons to regain the right to vote upon the conclusion of their sentences. However, the Supreme Court of Florida ruled that the bill was unconstitutional because it bypassed the governor’s clemency power. Though, many spoke out throughout the rest of the 20th century, this remained the only real attempt at reform until the 21st century.
On September 22, 2000, the Brennan Center for Justice represented eight ex-felons that filed a civil complaint against the state of Florida claiming its implementation of felony disenfranchisement violated the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the First, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Twenty-fourth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The case, Johnson v. Bush, lasted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in 2005 that the law would stand.
On April 5, 2007, Governor Charlie Crist was able to pass legislation that allowed ex-felons to regain the right to vote if approved by the Parole Commission. Crist intended this reform to include automatic reinstatement for all ex-felons that were not convicted of murder or violent sex crimes; however, other public officials at the time felt the reform was too lenient on criminals. This reform ultimately allowed over 150,000 ex-felons to regain the right to vote but was reversed in March 2011 under Governor Rick Scott. Scott also added the additional barrier of a five-year waiting period between the end of a sentence and application for voting reinstatement. This current iteration of the law has remained unchanged through today.
On February 1, 2018, federal judge Mark Walker ruled that Florida’s process of choosing which ex-felons should have their voting rights restored was unconstitutional. Walker argued that Florida’s system for re-enfranchisement is too broad for interpretation. As such, Walker claimed the decision to reinstate voting rights falls within the personal discretion of the governor and the clemency board, potentially allowing for personal bias to influence decisions.
According to ProCon.org:
- 10.43% of the Florida population is disenfranchised
- 1,686,318 total Floridians are disenfranchised.
- Florida has the most disenfranchised citizens in the United States.
- Florida has the highest disenfranchisement rate in the United States.
- 23.3% of black voters in Florida can’t vote because of felony disenfranchisement.
In Florida, there are four categories of felonies: third-degree, second-degree, first-degree, and capital or life felonies. While the severity of sentencing depends on the category the act falls in, all felons are automatically disenfranchised.
- Capital or life felonies are the most serious crimes in Florida, punishable by death or life imprisonment and a fine up to $15,000. Examples: sexual battery against a victim of 12 years or older in which the offender uses or threatens use of a deadly weapon or physical force to cause serious injury, murder, and possessing a weapon of mass destruction.
- First-degree felonies are punishable by a maximum of 30 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000. Examples:, DUI manslaughter, failing to render aid or give information, treason against the state, and accomplice to murder in connection with arson, sexual battery, home-invasion robbery, other robbery, burglary, and other specified felonies.
- Second-degree felonies are punishable by a maximum of 15 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000. Examples: neglect of a child causing grievous bodily harm, DUI manslaughter, written threats to kill or commit bodily injury, and robbery by sudden snatching.
- Third-degree felonies are the least serious felonies in Florida, characterized by a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000. Examples: identity document forgery, selling counterfeit registration license plates, bribery, and resisting arrest with violence.
- "Statutes & Constitution : Constitution : Online Sunshine". www.leg.state.fl.us. Retrieved April 10, 2018.
- "1.4 Million Floridians With Felonies Win Long-Denied Right to Vote". The New York Times. Retrieved November 20, 2018.
- "Amendments". floridaelectionwatch.gov. Retrieved November 20, 2018.
- "Laws governing the initiative process in Florida - Ballotpedia". Ballotpedia. Retrieved November 20, 2018.
- "Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in The United States". The Sentencing Project. Retrieved April 10, 2018.
- "Florida Constitution of 1838". fall.fsulawrc.com. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
- "Florida Constitution of 1868". fall.fsulawrc.com. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
- "Florida Constitution of 1968". fall.fsulawrc.com. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
- "Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Florida | Brennan Center for Justice". www.brennancenter.org. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
- Bousquet, Steve. "Judge strikes down Florida's system for restoring felons' voting rights". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
- "Number of People by State Who Cannot Vote Due to a Felony Conviction - Felon Voting - ProCon.org". felonvoting.procon.org. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
- "Definition of FELONY". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
- "Florida Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences". www.criminaldefenselawyer.com. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
- Corrections, Florida Department of. "Offense Severity Ranking Chart - Florida's Criminal Punishment Code: A Comparative Assessment (FY 2003-2004)". www.dc.state.fl.us. Retrieved April 29, 2018.