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March 17, 2011

Disenfranchisement News

Florida: State Board Makes it Harder for Ex-Offenders to Vote
Florida: “Turning Back the Clock”
Virginia: 1,100 Ex-offenders regain their civil rights


Florida: State Board Makes it Harder for Ex-Offenders to Vote, Activists Express Disagreement

Governor Rick Scott and other Cabinet-level officials voted unanimously last week to revise state rules enacted four years ago that made it easier for ex-offenders to regain the right to vote, The Washington Post reports.  Now, non-violent offenders will have to wait five years after the completion of their sentence to apply for the chance of civil rights restoration.

The 2007 rule, passed under then-Governor Charlie Crist, allowed more than 100,000 ex-offenders to earn the ability to register to vote ahead of the 2008 election.  Before 2007, ex-offenders were forced to apply and, in many instances, wait years for a hearing before the Clemency Board.

Attorney General Pam Bondi issued a statement saying that ex-offenders should be subject to a mandatory waiting period and have to apply to have their civil rights restored.  Civil rights leaders met with Bondi to voice their opposition to her call to end the practice of automatically restoring civil rights to non-violent ex-offenders once they have completed their sentences, the Associated Press reports.

“This issue of civil rights restoration is about principle, not partisanship,” said Jennifer Meale, Attorney General Pam Bondi’s spokeswoman.  “Attorney General Bondi is philosophically opposed to the concept of automatic restoration of civil rights and believes not only that felons should apply for their rights, but wait for a period of time in order to attest to their rehabilitation and commitment to living a crime-free life.”  

Howard Simon, executive director of Florida’s chapter of the ACLU, met with Bondi.  “The denial of civil rights to people is the great, unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” Simon said.  Dale Landry, vice president of the NAACP’s Florida State Conference, also met with Bondi and remarked, “All these gains in civil rights we’ve made over the years, and now they’re trying to turn the clock back.”


Florida: “Turning Back the Clock”

Erika Wood, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, argues in the Huffington Post that Governor Rick Scott’s new clemency rules ignore a broad consensus among law enforcement and criminal justice professionals that allowing people to vote upon reentry encourages participation in civic life and motivates law-abiding behavior.

Florida’s clemency policy is now the most restrictive in the country and disproportionately impacts African-Americans: nearly a quarter of those who are disenfranchised in Florida are African-American.  Florida’s disenfranchisement law was enacted after the Civil War in response to the Fifteenth Amendment, which forced states to grant African-American men the right to vote.  The voting ban was an attempt to weaken the political power of African-Americans, and according to Wood, it continues to have its intended effect through Florida’s newly-enacted clemency rules, which are reminiscent of a discriminatory past.


Virginia: 1,100 Ex-Offenders Regain Their Rights

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that during his first year in office, Governor Bob McDonnell restored the civil rights of more than 1,100 ex-offenders.  “I promised when I ran that we’d have the fastest and fairest civil-rights restorations process in modern history,” McDonnell said in a radio interview.  “I think we’ve accomplished that.”

After taking office in 2010, McDonnell set a self-imposed goal of responding to petitions for restoration of civil rights within 60 days.  Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Polarek said the state tries to beat the 60-day mark, with decisions coming for some within two weeks. 

Until 2000, Virginia had been one of only two states that required the governor to restore civil rights.  The ACLU and other groups have pushed for automatic restoration after the completion of a sentence.  The administration has approved about 90 percent of the non-violent ex-offender applications received and about 70 percent of the ones for people with a conviction for violence.  Tom Fitzpatrick, the ACLU of Virginia Dunn Fellow, said “The review process has been faster than the past administrations, but there are still 300,000 felons in Virginia that cannot vote due to Virginia’s disenfranchisement law.”

Issue Area(s): Incarceration, Felony Disenfranchisement
State(s): Florida, Virginia