• Niccolo E. Sohn

The Right to Vote for Florida Felons

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

In the eyes of many Americans, the right to vote has been and remains to be the most treasured American civil liberty. The right to vote provides the public with a chance to affect their government and adjust its power. It is an idea that dates back to when the Athenians of ancient Greece were first dreaming up democracy. The qualifications for the right to vote have been in a constant state of change as persistent social issues warrant adaptation and modification. However, for forty-seven years, the American voting rights landscape has seen little change. The last great push for voting rights came from the ratification of the 26th Amendment on July 1, 1971. This impactful piece of legislation modified the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, thus guaranteeing the voting rights of any U.S. citizen 18 years or older.


That is, unless a felony has been committed.


Until recently, almost all of the American state legislatures, barring Florida, Iowa and Kentucky, had lifted bans on the vote for released criminals who had completed their incarceration period. However, a change of opinion has found its way up to Florida State legislation.


The legislative power to restrict the vote for felons, released and incarcerated, lies with individual state governments, rather than with the federal government. As a result, there is a great range of possibilities for restriction among the fifty states. For example, Maine and Vermont are the only states that have no restrictions whatsoever, allowing felons to vote while in jail. In the states of Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah and the District of Columbia, disenfranchisement ends after the jail time has been served. States that determine vote restriction based on the circumstance and nature of the crime include Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee. Wyoming and Virginia require individual petitions to be filed for restraints to be lifted.


Apart from Florida, Iowa and Kentucky, the rest of the states end disenfranchisement after either parole or probation.


In the past, the main argument people pose against voter disenfranchisement is that it is highly discriminatory and unnecessary. Their leading sentiment is in the spirit of second chances. They reason that because a felon has served their time in prison and can come back into society, they should enjoy the right to vote like any other citizen. The incarceration is viewed as an equalizer, allowing the criminal to repay his or her debt to society. Because a crime has been committed, rights of American citizenship are to be taken away. Theoretically, after a former convict is released, he or she should regain rights as an American citizen in American society.


In Florida, the movement against disenfranchisement after release was led by Neil Volz, a congressional chief of staff, and Desmond Meade. Neil Volz was sentenced to probation for his role in a lobbying scandal in 2006.


Their rallying phrase is “Past mistakes should not define a person’s future.” In addition to this line, the movement prefers to refer to felons as ‘returning citizens.'


Due to Florida’s voter restrictions, almost six million voters have been kept out of the polls in past elections. In addition, 20% of African American voters were excluded from the polls as a result of the restrictions. Advocates for the motion justify that after being released, many former felons have no way of attaining health care and, in addition, do not have the power to vote for it.


The poll measure (#4 in the state of Florida) passed with a majority of 64%.


The Florida Constitution now reads, in Article IV, Section 4: “[V]oting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” It is important to note, however, that this this law does not apply to persons convicted of murder or sexual assault.