In the upcoming November election, Floridians will have the opportunity to vote on proposed Amendment 4—a grassroots, citizen-created amendment—which, if approved, will restore voting eligibility to people with prior felony convictions once they have fully completed all portions of their court imposed sentence. The Amendment will not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual crimes. I sat down with Angel Sanchez, a student at the University of Miami School of Law and an avid activist in the area of criminal justice issues to talk about Amendment 4 and its implications for Florida and beyond.
Let’s start with your personal connection to this issue and why it is so important to you.
I personally lost my ability to vote—for life—back when I was teenager. Now, over two decades later, I have paid my debt to society, I am doing the right thing, I am paying taxes, I am in law school, and yet I still cannot vote. Every election season, I am reminded that I am forever a second-class citizen unless the governor and his cabinet have mercy on me someday. This is true for any person convicted of a felony in Florida.
As a teenager, I didn’t think much about voting, but as I began to grow up, I became aware of my disenfranchised status. I first learned about this while I was in prison. I was looking through occupations that I might pursue in hopes of become a productive member of society when I got out. What I noticed was that most occupations had a “restoration of civil rights” requirement. For example, former felons cannot apply to the Florida Bar and go through the process of proving their rehabilitation until they have their “civil rights restored.” Before this, I had no clue what “restoration of civil rights” was. The idea that I could get out, pay taxes, and still be prohibited from voting did not make sense. It went against the democratic ideal of “no taxation without representation.”
After my release from prison, I attended community college while living in a homeless shelter. The first chance I got to write a research paper, I wrote it on felony disenfranchisement. In fact, that was the first time I learned the stripping of voting rights due to a felony was called “felon disenfranchisement.” At the time, I saw an op-ed in the local paper from a former felon named Desmond Meade who happened to have graduated from law school and was speaking on this issue. Desmond inspired me through that op-ed. Within just 18 months of leaving prison—and while still living in a homeless shelter—I began speaking out on this issue. That was as far back as 2012. Once at the local university, I used my resources to write a thesis measuring felony disenfranchisement’s impact on Hispanics in Florida. It was during that time that I connected with Desmond and became a member of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Together with so many others we created a non-partisan, grass-roots movement culminating in the collection of over a million petitions, which put Amendment 4 on the ballot. Now we need to get it across the finish line.
So Amendment 4 seeks to change the system for restoring voting rights to people with prior felony convictions. Can you just quickly explain how the system currently works (for those who haven’t watched the John Oliver clip, which they should)? Is Florida’s system uncommon, or reflective of what other states do?
According to Florida’s Constitution, citizens convicted of a felony are stripped of their civil rights for life regardless of the crime. Only the governor and his or her cabinet can restore those rights using its pardoning and clemency power. In a word, Florida’s voting restoration is governed by rule-of-politician instead of rule-of-law.
The current clemency rules make it really difficult to restore individuals’ voting eligibility. In addition to going through the process of completing all court-imposed sentences, people must wait an additional 5–7 years before they can even apply, only to then get in the back of a 10,000-applicant backlogged line that can take up to another decade of waiting.
Because it is a clemency proceeding (i.e., a beg for mercy) the governor can arbitrarily deny the application without any explanation or review. Indeed, a federal judge recently described the current system as being unconstitutionally arbitrary, requiring people to kowtow before the governor even after they have paid their debt to society. The fix, however, must come from Floridians: according to a preliminary appellate court decision on the matter, clemency is discretional and can be arbitrary without being unconstitutional. Floridians answered the call and decided to fix this broken, arbitrary system through the political process: that is the purpose of Amendment 4.
Florida is currently only one of four outlier states that permanently strips voting eligibility for life due to a felony conviction regardless of the crime. Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia are the other three. Virginia’s governor, however, recently implemented an automatic restoration process, so it is now only Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa that make up this outlier group. Most striking is that in a country with 50 states, a quarter of the entire disenfranchised population in the US is concentrated in just one state, Florida.
What would you say are the core problems with the system for restoring voting rights as it currently exists in Florida?
The brokenness of the current system is at the core of the problem, and it has a lot to do with the way it was set up over 150 years ago. The system leaves it up to politicians to decide whether it is politically expedient to restore someone’s voting eligibility. Florida’s constitution mandates the disenfranchisement of any person convicted of a felony with no objective, non-political restorative process. This is true regardless of the crime or whether the person served time in prison. This means that even crimes that are not serious enough to warrant prison time will still result in lifetime disenfranchisement. Without an objective restorative process in the text of the constitution, only a pardon from the sitting governor through that governor’s clemency rules can restore civil rights. Every governor gets to implement their own clemency rules, so from one election to the next the rules can change, making it even harder for people to have their voting eligibility restored. For example, the current governor rolled back his predecessor’s clemency rules, making the process more stringent and causing restorations to plummet from 115,000 in four years to just over 3,000 in the last seven years. That is problematic. People who have fully paid their debt to society should not have their voting eligibility determined by the whim of politicians and election cycles. The other part of the problem is the size of the issue. One in ten Floridians cannot vote because of a felony. Indeed, 1.4 million Floridians have completed their sentences and are tax paying members of society, yet they cannot vote. Even military veterans are impacted. Approximately 10,000 military veterans in just the last five years have fully paid their debt to society and yet they cannot vote because of Florida’s broken system.
I would guess that one of the most common concerns raised by critics of this Amendment would be that “those who break the law should not claim the right to make the law for everyone else” or that those who have committed very serious crimes are somehow “unfit” to vote. How would you respond to those concerns?
I have heard that misleading catch-phrases floated saying that former felons should not be able to make the laws “for” everyone. Those who have the ability to vote do not make the laws for everyone else—they make the laws with everyone else. By using the word “for” this catch-phrase tries to subtly mislead people by giving off the impression that if former felons are restored their voting eligibility, they will somehow be given superior power to make the laws “for” everyone else. The truth is that restoring voting eligibility simply gives someone the opportunity to vote with everyone else for the law or candidate on the ballot. In fact, 46 states restore voting eligibility to most people convicted of a felony—two of them even allow prisoners to right to vote—and in all of them they vote with everyone else on election day.
As for the concern that people convicted of serious crimes are “unfit” to vote, I would simply point to the fact that the majority of states allow people—even those who have committed serious crimes—the ability to vote once their debt is paid. If “fitness” was a problem we would see it across the United States, especially in places like Vermont, Maine, and Puerto Rico where even prisoners get to vote. Supporters of Amendment 4 believe that serious crimes deserve serious time. Voting eligibility, according to Amendment 4, will not be restored until that time is completely served.
Other people may look at this Amendment and think that this is a problem that affects only people who have committed serious crimes, and that it therefore has no broader impact to be concerned with. What would you say to convince those people that this is an important issue for everyone?
Restoring voting eligibility is important to Floridians who care about making Florida safer and economically better. Research shows that individuals who have their voting eligibility restored are less likely to re-offend—that means less crime, less victims, and less tax money spent. Restoring voting eligibility gives people an opportunity to redeem themselves, become civic minded, and gain a stake in their community. In addition to lowering recidivism, a recent economic study on Amendment 4 by the Washington Economic Group (WEG) affirmed that restoring voting eligibility will add 3,600 jobs and produce an annual benefit of $365 million to the Florida economy.
Personally, I’ve been trying to situate this problem within its broader context to gain better perspective. To what extent, if at all, do you see felony disenfranchisement as a criminal justice issue, and, given the underlying problems of the criminal justice system, as a racial justice issue as well? How do you think the histories of these other problems has played into creating the system we have now and do you think this Amendment could help to start remedying past injustices?
Felony disenfranchisement is a criminal justice issue by the fact that it is a consequence of people’s interactions with the criminal justice system. You cannot be disenfranchised without coming into contact with the criminal justice system. Moreover, those who cannot vote are more likely to continue to be trapped in the criminal justice system and less likely to be respected as voting constituents by the politicians who wield the power of the criminal justice system. In a sense, there is a feedback loop between the criminal justice system and felony disenfranchisement.
Although the origins of felony disenfranchisement were not intended to target a particular race, its use became racially motivated after the end of the Civil War in an attempt to silence the newly freed African American males. This has led to a persisting disproportionate impact in the African American community. The racially responsive legacy of felony disenfranchisement can be gleaned from the fact that the two least restrictive states, Vermont and Maine, are also two of the states with the least amount of African Americans, while the majority of the most restrictive states happen to also have the largest African American populations. Thankfully, Amendment 4 will remove Florida from the short of list of the most restrictive states and begin remedying some past injustices.
Voting rights are certainly not the only concern facing formerly incarcerated people. Looking forward, what other failings would you like to see addressed?
Because of my personal journey, I know first-hand the transformative power of higher education when it comes to prisoners, so I look to continue working to create a prison-to-college pipeline so that we can see more stories like Desmond’s and mine.