March 12, 2011- On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), along with his cabinet, reinstated a rule with major civil rights implications requiring felons to wait at least five years beyond the end of their sentence before applying to regain the right to vote. From the Palm Beach Post:
Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on Wednesday imposed a minimum five-year waiting period for convicted felons to apply to have their rights restored, setting up a more onerous standard than the state has used for the past three decades.
Gov. Jeb Bush (R) dismantled the five-year waiting period in 2004, in the wake of the controversial 2000 presidential election, during which thousands of Floridians were disenfranchised after a state voter database erroneously labeled them felons. The effects of the felony disenfranchisement law in 2000 were that "over 600,000 non-incarcerated citizens" were prevented from voting "in a presidential election decided by 537 votes." In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist (I) did away with the application process for nonviolent felons and allowed for the automatic restoration of civil rights upon sentence completion.
Gov. Scott's move to turn back the clock is unusual in itself; the only other states with similar laws are Virginia and Kentucky. But the historical context and the practical implications of the law are far more troubling than Scott's restoration of the harshly punitive policy.
Felon disenfranchisement rules are rooted in post-Civil War statutes designed to circumvent national laws guaranteeing blacks the right to vote. When Florida was forced during Reconstruction to adopt a state constitution recognizing the right to vote (for men) regardless of race, the constitution it ratified included a felon disenfranchisement provision for which, according to a report from the Florida Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, there is historical "evidence of a racial animus." According to the American Constitution Society:
General disenfranchisement laws that had applied to all criminals were tailored to particularized crimes that were committed more frequently by blacks than crimes that were committed more often by whites. Thus, while today's felony disenfranchisement laws are facially neutral, many are inherited from an underlying legacy of racist voting restrictions.