Wilbertine Berkley is one of hundreds of thousands of Floridians with past felony convictions whose voting rights are in peril. After struggling with substance abuse, Wilbertine has served her time, enrolled in college and become a volunteer with a homelessness organization in her community. She's overcome more obstacles than many of us, but after four years, she's still waiting to have her voting rights reinstated, lost amidst the backlog of over 100,000 rights restoration cases yet to be acted upon by the Florida Board of Executive Clemency.
Felony disfranchisement refers to the set of policies, which differ from state-to-state, that bar people with felony convictions from voting. Florida has one of the strictest in the nation, and is home to one-fifth of the 5.3 million Americans disfranchised across the country. Researchers estimate that nearly 1 million Floridians who have finished their sentences are barred from voting; approximately 25 percent are African-American.
So what could be worse than Florida's current system for restoring voting rights to people like Wilbertine? I'll tell you: the new proposal being considered by the Board of Executive Clemency, which would make regaining one's voting rights close to impossible.
Under the new proposal, the details of which have not been publicly revealed, individuals would have to wait several years after they finish their sentences just to "earn" the right to apply for their rights back. "The restoration of civil rights…must be earned, it is not an entitlement," Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said last week. The difficulty of the process alone would likely discourage most people from even applying.
Florida has an ugly history of voter disfranchisement, and this attempt to elbow even more people out of the political process is a blow to the democracy we hold so dear. The St. Petersburg Times rightly called it "a step backward on civil rights."
What's more, the idea of changing the rules was made public only a week ago, and indications are the board may act less than a week from now. No written proposals have been offered, and no meaningful opportunity has been given for public consideration or comment. The voices of civil rights leaders and criminal justice experts have not been heard, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Floridians like Wilbertine who will be impacted by the proposed change.
Some other states have realized that further restricting voting rights is a step in the wrong direction. Last year, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed to make people with past convictions write statements explaining why the restoration of their voting rights was justified. The ACLU spoke out against the proposal, and the Washington Post called it "a kind of literacy test […]as obnoxious in its own way as the literacy tests of Jim Crow." In the wake of national criticism, Gov. McDonnell changed his course, and even made some improvements to the law. Florida's Board of Executive Clemency should do the same.
Nothing is more sacred to our democracy than the fundamental right to vote. The Florida Board of Executive Clemency cannot be permitted to simply wipe away the rights of hundreds of thousands of Floridians, especially without substantial public debate. Stand with the ACLU and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and tell the Board of Executive Clemency to get out of the dark ages and on board with democracy.