Voting: it’s one of the fundamental rights of a citizen in a democracy, and yet millions of Americans who are ex-felons are denied it, even after they have paid their debt to society. In two states, Iowa and Florida, anyone convicted of a felony could potentially be banned from voting for life.
On Oct. 2, the NAACP initiated a national campaign aimed at restoring these rights to all. They did so across the nation, along with allies in each state.
In Florida, a coalition of groups began the campaign. While they did not succeed in their endeavor to win the right back by the Oct. 9 deadline for registration, they vow to continue the fight.
The battle in Florida is aimed at restoring rights that were recently won – and then lost. Five years ago, in 2007, then Gov. Charles Crist, a Republican, with the support of the previous governor, Jeb Bush, moved to automatically restore voting rights to a felon once their sentence was served.
However, in 2011, the state’s Clemency Board, which is made up of the more extremist current Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, and two other elected officials, changed the rules back. Now ex-felons must wait seven years before even applying to have their civil rights restored.
The state is one of only four, along with Iowa, Virginia and Kentucky, that continues to disenfranchise ex-felons even after they complete each term of their sentences.
According to NAACP President Ben Jealous, “Voting is a right. In this state, the governor has decided to turn back the clock.”
According to the NAACP, there are about 6 million Americans who have been disenfranchised due to felony convictions, 4.4 million of whom are no longer incarcerated. The number of citizens in Florida who have lost their right to vote is 1.5 million.
From 2009 to 2010, the waning days of Crist’s administration, more than 30,000 people had their voting rights restored. In stark contrast, less than 250 people have had their voting rights restored during the current administration. Given Florida’s status as a swing state and the potential closeness of the vote, the changed rules could have national implications.
In the 2000 elections, the Florida vote, which determined the national outcome, was decided by less than 600 votes.
The African American community is hit the hardest by the disenfranchisement, most notably due to the effects of racial profiling and the “war on drugs,” which, studies have shown, has disproportionately affected black and Latino communities. While critics of these rules have pointed out that African Americans tend to vote Democratic, and that those who push the vote bans are generally Republicans, the disenfranchisement goes beyond a simple push to win elections.
Moves to disenfranchise ex-felons go back to post-Civil War days. After the defeat of Reconstruction, an attempt by the Union government to bring revolutionary democratic change to the defeated former-Confederate states, the racist white Southern aristocracy attempted to preserve its power by restricting the right of African Americans to vote. One of their first tools was the disenfranchisement of ex-felons.
The NAACP notes that Southern whites believed African Americans were more likely to commit property crimes than whites. Thus, the 1890 constitution of Mississippi, they note, “required disfranchisement for such crimes as theft, burglary, and receiving money under false pretenses, but not for robbery or murder. Through this convoluted reasoning, someone could be disfranchised for stealing a chicken, but not for killing the chicken’s owner.”
This pattern continues: three in 10 African Americans in the upcoming generation will be disenfranchised at some point in their lives.
More information about the campaign is available at the Restore the Vote website.