The U.S. Supreme Court has held that states may bar convicted felons from voting. Indeed, the 14th Amendment expressly acknowledges this historical practice: “But when the right to vote . . . is denied . . . or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime . . . .”

Some form of felon disenfranchisement has been a part of the Florida Constitution since 1838, long before the Civil War. The current Constitution, adopted in 1968, continues this practice in Florida. In 2005, a panel of federal judges overwhelmingly agreed that the Florida ban on felon voting did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and did not violate the federal Voting Rights Act. You can read the opinion in Johnson v. Bush here.

Now, there is a movement brewing to change the Florida Constitution and to automatically restore voting rights to most felons, including violent criminals. This is a partisan effort to radically change 179 years of Florida law in a way that, when fully understood, is opposed by most reasonable people.

The proposed constitutional amendment is bad policy for these reasons:

  • It recognizes that some crimes are more serious than others (so it excludes convictions for murder and sexual felonies) but then treats many other violent crimes no differently than non-violent crimes
  • It makes no distinction between one-time offenders and career criminals
  • It fails to consider, or to allow anybody else to consider, the nature of the crime(s) committed, the harm caused to any victims, the felon’s criminal history or post-release conduct, or anything else that a reasonable person might want to consider before giving that felon back the right to vote
  • It ignores historical recidivism data, which shows that between one-quarter and one-third of felons released from Florida prisons will be back in prison within three years

There is certainly room for a fair and honest debate about the current clemency process, which some argue is too complicated and takes too long. But an ill-considered, blanket restoration of felon voting rights isn’t the answer.

Richard A. Harrison
About the author

Richard A. Harrison serves as the Executive Director of Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, Inc. Richard is an accomplished lawyer specializing in the area of city, county, and local government law. Richard is frequently consulted by the media on matters relating to local government issues in the news and has written and spoken extensively on local government topics. He is a graduate of Stetson University (B.A., English, 1982) and Stetson University College of Law (J.D. 1986) and serves as an adjunct professor of law and on the Board of Overseers for Stetson University College of Law.