In all but two states, citizens convicted of a felony are barred from voting for some period of time. While many states restore voting rights to individuals automatically after they exit jail or prison, others permanently disenfranchise people with a past felony conviction or require they petition the government to have their right restored.
Nationwide, nearly 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to felony convictions.
Although most states restrict the voting rights of imprisoned felons, Iowa and Florida are currently the only states that impose a lifelong disenfranchisement for ex-felons, meaning ex-felons cannot vote unless they ask the governor to restore their rights.
This rule seems contradictory to the justice system. The incarcerated “do the time for the crime.” Once someone is released back into society, shouldn’t all rights be restored? Prison is supposed to rehabilitate a person, so why should one mistake – as small or as large as it might be – hinder that individual from the right to vote for the remainder of that person’s life?
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the state of Kentucky changed its tune by lifting its ban. The state’s outgoing governor issued an executive order to restore the voting rights of ex-felons. The incoming governor is planning to uphold the order. An estimated 140,000 Kentuckians immediately gained the right to register to vote, and 30,000 more will become eligible after they complete their sentences.
Meanwhile, in Florida, more than 1.5 million people have lost the right to cast a ballot on Election Day, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit prison reform group.
The 1.5 million figure dates back to 2010 when Governor Charlie Crist was already automatically restored the rights of many felony offenders who had completed their sentences.
Today, it is estimated that the figure is much larger because as soon as Governor Rick Scott took office in 2011, he immediately rolled back Crist’s policy.
Since 2011, Governor Scott introduced new rules: people convicted of nonviolent felonies must wait five years before they can apply to have their civil rights restored. Those convicted of violent and more serious felonies must wait seven years to apply.
Under Governor Crist, tens of thousands of felons, on average, won back their right to vote each year. From 2011 to today –as tens of thousands of former inmates are released each year– Governor Scott has restored the rights of just 1,866 ex-felons.
Even with the waiting period, ex-felons in Florida who are applying to get their voting rights restored have stated that they are experiencing longer wait times than the five to seven years.
“We’ve had older clients call us and say I want to be able to vote again before I die,” said Mathew Higbee, the founding partner of Higbee & Associates, a law firm that helps ex-felons restore their civil rights. “And we say, ‘Right now it’s going to be a six- to 10-year wait before they’ll even look at it,’ and the person says: ‘I’m not sure I’m going to live that long so I’m not even going to try.’”
“Honestly it feels like there is not a single person who cares if I get the right to vote,” said Sam Nimmo, a 38-year-old handyman who has filed three unsuccessful applications to Florida state clemency board. “I feel like half a citizen.”
The Intercept reports that “Nimmo was arrested for burglary and marijuana possession when he was 17, and has never been allowed to cast a ballot.”
“My kids would come home from school and start talking about George Washington and they would do things like mock voting at school, and they would say, ‘I voted for Barack Obama. Who did you vote for, Dad?’” Nimmo explained. “I would look at them and say, ‘You know, I just haven’t decided yet.’ I would make up excuses, something like, ‘I need to pay more attention to politics and I need do a little more research.’ I was too embarrassed to tell them that I can’t vote.”
According to NPR, since Governor Scott took office in 2011, “his clemency board has reviewed 100,000 cases and restored civil rights to fewer than 2,000 people. More than 20,000 applications remain pending before the board.”
Eddie Walker, the pastor of In God’s Time Tabernacle in Orlando, is an example of one of the “pending” applicants. You would think a man who has rehabilitated himself from a cocaine-trafficking operator in the 1990s to a church pastor would be able to vote, but he’s been waiting for his rights to be restored since 2005. “Despite multiple follow-ups he has never received a substantive answer from the state,” The Intercept reports.
Currently, a group of ex-felons is collecting signatures for a petition to change Florida's clemency process. The goal is to automatically restore voting rights to most ex-felons. So far, the petition has over 43,000 signatures of the 68,000 needed to trigger a review of the clemency process by the state Supreme Court.
Any way you slice it, voting is a right. I don't think it's patriotic to take the right to vote away from anybody. As long as their sentences are served, what is the reasoning behind disenfranchising people? Are we afraid the ex-cons will team up and eliminate all of our laws?
Whatever the argument, keeping people out of the voting booth is something that no democratic nation should support.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC its affiliates, or its employees.
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