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On Felons' Rights, 2 States Take 2 Different Directions

Florida voters opted to automatically restore voting rights to former felons, affecting some 1.4 million residents. In Louisiana, voters instituted a five-year waiting period for felons to seek political office.

Demonstrators protest for felons' voting rights.
(AP/J. Pat Carter)
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Voters in two states went in opposite directions on Election Day regarding the political rights of felons. Florida eliminated barriers for former felons to vote, while voters in Lousiana put restrictions of former felons seeking public office.

Felons in Florida will automatically have their right to vote restored once released from prison, after nearly two-thirds of voters in the state approved an amendement to the state constitution Tuesday. 

Florida is home to 25 percent of the country's disenfranchised felons.

The United States has some of the most restrictive voting practices for former felons, according to a report by the Sentencing Project. There are more than 6 million former felons in America who aren't allowed to cast a ballot, and a disproportionate share of them are black. According to that report, 7.4 percent of black adults can’t vote for this reason, compared to 1.8 percent for the rest of the population.

Florida's felon voting laws were particularly strict. It was one of only three states that doesn't restore voting rights to felons unless they receive approval from a governor-appointed board. Only a limited number of felons are eligible for that, which left 1.4 million potential voters unable to participate in the state's elections because of their criminal record.

Advocates of Florida's Amendment 4 argued that restoring felons' voting rights is long overdue.

“The United States was founded as an experiment in democracy, which it was, but it was a very limited experiment,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit, told The Atlantic. “Women couldn’t vote. African-Americans couldn’t vote. Illiterates, poor people and also people with felony convictions. Over the course of 200 years, we’ve done away with all those other exclusions. We now look back on them with a great deal of national embarrassment.”

Florida's voting restoration rules have shifted in recent years. In 2007, former Gov. Charlie Crist, who ran as a Republican before his political stances began moving left, granted automatic restoration of voting rights to former felons if they had no pending criminal charges. But the policy changed under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who made convicted felons wait between five and seven years before allowing them to even request their voting rights to be restored and limited eligibility to those who receive approval from the governor.

More than $15 million in campaign contributions lined up in support of Amendment 4, with the largest contributions coming from the American Civil Liberties Union. No money came in to oppose the measure.

Only in Maine and Vermont do felons never lose the right to vote -- even during incarceration. Washington, D.C., and 14 states automatically restore a felon’s right to vote upon release from prison; 21 states require felons to complete their sentence, probation or parole and pay restitution for any outstanding fines; and 13 states -- including Florida -- make restoration much more difficult.


Should Felons Run for Office?

Meanwhile, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative that bans former felons from running for public office for five years after they complete their prison sentences. Nearly 75 percent of voters supported the measure.

The state had been one of three -- the others being Maine and Vermont -- that allowed felons to run for state or local office immediately after serving their time. In the rest, the right to run for office is lost with a felony conviction and not gained back -- if at all -- until either completion of parole or probation, payment of restitution, and/or approval from the governor or a state board. Massachusetts also prohibits those convicted while holding office from running again. (For federal office, there are no restrictions on convicted felons running. But if elected, Congress can decide whether to expel them for previous crimes.)

While it's not common, it's not unheard of for felons to seek and win political office.

In 2015, Bridgeport, Conn., Mayor Joe Ganim returned from prison to run a successful mayoral campaign. Ganim previously served as the mayor in Connecticut’s largest city before being convicted on federal racketeering, extortion and bribery charges in 2003. Most recently, Ganim ran a failed campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for governor.

In 2008, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was found guilty of failing to properly report gifts given to him by an Alaska-based corporation. Stevens ran for reelection anyway, and Congress pledged to hold an expulsion vote. However, a federal judge ultimately threw out the conviction, claiming Stevens had been a victim of prosecutorial misconduct.

And perhaps most famously, former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry won office in 1994, four years after being convicted on drug charges, and again in 2005.

Amendment 1 ended up on the Louisiana ballot after lawmakers could not agree on the time convicts would have to wait to have their right to run for office restored. Members of the House wanted to make felons wait eight years; the Senate wanted them to wait just five.

Ironically, the legislature did pass a law to restore felons' right to vote after five years. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the bill in May.

Twenty years ago, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure similar to Tuesday's. But the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down the amendment on the basis that the ballot language was poorly written.

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