Florida tops in voter disenfranchisement

When Historic City News editor Michael Gold first met Attorney General Pam Bondi in St Augustine, she campaigned against a policy implemented by former Governor Charlie Crist that allowed the voting rights of convicted felons to be restored upon completion of their prison sentence.

Immediate voting right restoration was an issue that Bondi urged the Board of Clemency to reverse, after she was elected.

According to The Sentencing Project, a group promoting criminal justice reforms, about a tenth of the voting-age population in Florida is not allowed to vote because they are ex-felons, the highest rate in the nation.

About a million Floridians will not be able to participate in this year’s elections because of a criminal record, according to the group.

Florida changed the procedure for ex-convicts to regain the right to vote in March 2011.

The new procedures require a five-year waiting period after release from prison before a person can request restoration of voting rights.

That bristles some in the state, including Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho in Tallahassee. Unlike Bondi, who says to let them demonstrate rehabilitation by “living crime-free during a waiting period”, after the completion of their sentences, Sancho says, “It’s a bad situation and should shock the conscious of all Floridians”.

Sancho rhetorically asked local reporters yesterday, “How can you say you live in a free society when you pay your debt to society, you serve your sentence and it means nothing?”, when asked for a comment about the Sentencing Project report.

Bondi’s office, however, responded , “Attorney General Bondi believes that, out of fairness to law-abiding citizens and the victims of crime, it is reasonable to ask felons to apply to have their rights restored after an evaluation period.”

About a third of the people who have lost the right to vote in Florida are black men, according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Sancho doesn’t think that is reasonable. He protested at last year’s meeting when the Clemency Board implemented the five-year waiting period. At the time he accused the board of acting for political reasons, “because they (ex-felons) might not vote for us.” Yesterday, he stepped up his criticism.

“The state of Florida has declared war on people wanting to vote and actually shows hostility to people who want to vote,” Sancho said. “That’s why right now it is defending itself in six elections-related lawsuits.”

Florida and the Department of Justice are suing each other over an effort to purge non-citizens from Florida’s voting rolls. Voter advocacy groups have also taken the state to court over provisions of the new law.

The Sentencing Project report found an estimated 23 percent of the state’s adult black population, and 10.4 percent of the total voting age population, are disenfranchised by loss of civil rights as result of criminal convictions. The national averages are 7.7 percent for blacks, and 2.5 percent for the overall population.

Share your thoughts with our readers >>