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Voting Rights for Felons Becoming a Key Issue for Democrats

Florida has emerged as a battleground in the fight over the 6 million people, in and out of jail, who can't vote because they were convicted of a felony.

(AP/Rob Carr)
Last Updated April 26 at 12:55 a.m. ET

Florida Gov. Rick Scott won a big legal battle Wednesday, but the fight over voting rights for felons in his state is far from over.

Scott was under a court order to revise the state's system for restoring voting rights. Currently, former offenders in Florida have to wade through a difficult and protracted clemency process, which a federal judge last month deemed "fatally flawed." He gave the state until April 26 to revamp its process.

Hours before that deadline, however, an appellate court blocked the injunction.

"The governor has broad discretion to grant and deny clemency, even when the applicable regime lacks any standarrds," the court ruled.

The issue won't end there. In November, voters could approve a ballot initiative that would automatically restore voting rights for felons -- except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

"The remedy is in the hands of the people," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Florida remains the central battleground in the fight to restore voting rights for felons. The issue has been talked about for years by liberals and libertarians, but it's gained new momentum lately and is close to becoming a default position for Democrats. It's part of the party's pushback against Republican voting measures, such as voter ID requirements, that Democrats believe are too restrictive or even suppressive. 

"The policy of disenfranchising residents is unique among industrial countries. Other countries don't eliminate voting rights for citizens, even if they're incarcerated," says Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a progressive criminal justice reform group.

Voting rights restoration is also in keeping with the broader criminal justice reform effort to ease the transition of former prisoners back into society.

"It's just not a credible argument to say that voting presents a threat to public safety," says Scott Novakowski, associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which is pushing for restoration of voting rights for felons, including those currently serving time. "There's no justification for this practice. It's having a massive impact on communities of color."

The stakes are high. Nationwide, 6 million people with felony convictions are disenfranchised, including 4.7 million who have completed their prison sentences. The Florida ban alone affects 1.6 million, or 10 percent of the state's voting-age population. Florida is one of 33 states that doesn't automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons. (Two, Maine and Vermont, don't strip felons of voting rights, even while they're incarcerated.)

Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order restoring voting rights to felons who have been paroled. Sixteen other states allow people who are on parole or probation to vote.

"It is unconscionable to deny voting rights to New Yorkers who have paid their debt and have re-entered society," Cuomo said.

The chair of the New York Republican Party, Ed Cox, disagrees, calling Cuomo's action "liberal lunacy" and an "outrageous power grab."

Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that studies race and ethnicity, doesn't think felons should be barred from voting forever, but, he says their rights shouldn't be restored automatically because "then you lose the opportunity to incentivize people to turn over a new leaf."

Nebraska GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts used the same argument last year when he vetoed legislation that would have abolished the state's two-year waiting period for ex-felons to vote.

“Requiring convicted felons to wait before allowing them to vote provides an incentive to maintain a clean record and avoid subsequent convictions,” Ricketts wrote in his veto letter.

Porter, of the Sentencing Project, attributes Democrats' increased interest in the issue to a 2016 Maryland law that restored voting rights for felons on parole and probation. The Democratic-dominated legislature passed it over GOP Gov. Larry Hogan's veto. Then, before leaving office earlier this year, former Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to 170,000 felons who had served their time.

"He had to adjust his procedures after a court ruling, granting them individually, but he delivered in a way that impressed Democrats and African-Americans in particular," says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Racial disparities are often highlighted by proponents of voting rights restoration. In Kentucky, one in 11 voting-age adults is disenfranchised by the ban on felon voting, but that number jumps to one in four among black residents. 

"New Jersey unfortunately has the greatest disparity in incarcerations," says Novakowski of the state's Institute for Social Justice. "A black adult is 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white adult. This idea of tying the criminal justice system to the right to vote is furthering this inequality and reproducing it within the electorate."

But Clegg, the Center for Equal Opportunity president, says that if bans on felons voting were racially motivated, they would have been struck down by the courts long ago. 

"The reason it makes sense for felons to lose the right to vote for some period of time is that if you've broken the law, you forfeit the right to have a say in what the law is for everyone else," Clegg says.

Given Republicans' dominance of most state governments, it's unlikely that voting rights will be restored for felons all over the country anytime soon. But polls indicate that a strong majority of voters in Florida support this year's ballot measure, and Porter predicts more governors will follow Cuomo's lead.

"What Cuomo has done is significant," says Porter. "Certainly we'll not stop with him."

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Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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