Florida is on the cusp of joining the rest of the nation in automatically restoring the right to vote to most felons who have completed their sentences. Voters should not let a tangle of misconceptions about the constitutional amendment prevent them from making this important vote for justice and fairness.
Consider who would be helped by Amendment 4, which needs at least 60 percent voter approval to be added the Florida Constitution:
Floridians who trespassed on a construction site, repeatedly drove with a suspended driver’s license or released balloons into the air, which are all felonies in this state.
Floridians who never served a day in prison but were convicted of a felony.
Floridians who, if given the chance to become full citizens again, are statistically less likely to commit new crimes.
In addition, the notion that Amendment 4 will give rise to a new electorate of dangerous African-American felons coming out of prison and registering as Democrats is — in addition to being offensive — simply false. Some two-thirds of people in Florida with felony convictions are not black, and around three-quarters of felons are not sentenced to prison.
Amendment 4 is about fairness, not politics. Passing it would be a rightful rebuke of the current clemency process, which is fickle, random and can be subject to racial bias. In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet imposed a minimum five-year wait for anyone to be considered for clemency and consider each application individually based on no uniform standards. Scott and three Cabinet members, who sit as the Clemency Board four times a year in Tallahassee, often ask irrelevant, intrusive questions about an applicant’s marriage or driving habits. Most people are denied.
The Palm Beach Post recently analyzed who has gotten their rights back under Scott, and the results are troubling. The Post found Scott, who must be on the prevailing side, agreed to restore the voting rights of twice as many whites as blacks. And African-Americans accounted for 27 percent of those who had their voting rights restored even though blacks account for 43 percent of those released from prison over the past two decades. The Post couldn’t compare people who had their rights restored to the full pool of people who applied because Scott’s office doesn’t keep a list of applications he has rejected, estimated at around 16,000. That’s no way to handle the serious work of helping people reintegrate into society.
The snapshot provided by the Post is interesting and reflects the arbitrariness of Scott’s system. But the broader point is that Amendment 4 does not go soft on hardened criminals. In fact, it does not apply to anyone convicted of murder or felony sex crimes. Florida is one of only three states that permanently disenfranchises all felons. Passing Amendment 4 would erase from the state Constitution a Jim Crow-era relic that excludes more than 1 million citizens from a basic and sacred right, which should not be deprived of anyone who has completed their sentence.