By Jamie Fellner
There is a simple solution to Florida’s dilemma about how to determine which ex-felons are permitted to vote: get rid of the state’s shameful felony disenfranchisement laws.
Florida is one of only 7 states that permanently deny all ex-offenders access to the voting booth. The consequences there are stark: some 600,000 Floridians are unable to vote, including more than 17 percent of the state’s black male adults.
Some legislators raise bogus arguments about virtue being a prerequisite to voting—as though all those who have the franchise have led blemish-free lives. Underneath such pious sentiments are calculated partisan politics. Simply put, Republicans fear Democrats would benefit if Florida became a state that honored the fundamental precept of a free nation: the right to vote.
Five years ago, Human Rights Watch documented the outrageous consequences nationwide of felony disenfranchisement laws, including those in Florida. At the time, few Americans were even aware that nearly one and a half million ex-felons in this country were denied voting rights even long after they completed their criminal sentences. Somewhat naively perhaps, we assumed that once this fact became known, legislators across the country would promptly step up to make the necessary legislative fix.
There has been some progress—but not in Florida. Despite legislative debates and lawsuits, Florida stubbornly retains the law denying ex-felons the vote for life. An eighteen-year-old convicted of a single drug offense can never vote no matter how exemplary her subsequent life. The only option is to navigate the frustrating and cumbersome process of seeking a pardon or restoration of civil rights from the governor—and this is not much of an option. The current backlog of people seeking to have the vote restored is estimated to be more than 40,000.
The right to vote is a fundamental human right. It can be frustrated by hanging chads and butterfly ballots.
But Florida’s felony disenfranchisement laws keep far more Florida residents from choosing their elected officials than these infamous—but not legislatively mandated—problems.
* Jamie Fellner is the director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch and co-author of “Losing the Vote: Felony Disenfranchisement in the U.S.”, a report published by Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project.