First Presidential Debate Set in State that Strips More than Half-Million Citizens of the Right to Vote

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
September 30, 2004 12:00 am

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ACLU of Florida
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MIAMI, FL – As Americans gather around their television sets tonight to watch President George Bush and Senator John Kerry square off in their first presidential debate, thousands of citizens who live in Florida will be shut out of the political process — barred for the remainder of their lives from choosing who becomes the next president of the United States.

Florida ranks at the top of the list of states that strip people with past felony convictions of their civil and voting rights. More than 600,000 people in Florida will be unable to cast a ballot for either candidate on November 2 because of this ban. Similar laws across the country lock nearly 4.7 million Americans from the voting booth.

“I’m a constituent without a voice,” said Jimmy Klinakis, operations director of a state-funded drug treatment center called the Better Way of Miami, Inc. “Federal and state policies have a direct impact on my life and those of my clients, yet I have no say in who gets to speak on my behalf because I basically don’t exist in the eyes of politicians.”

No other democratic nation disfranchises former offenders for life; some countries deny voting rights to citizens after they have completed a prison sentence, but generally this is for a limited period of time and for specific offenses.

According to the Washington-D.C.-based Sentencing Project, constitutional courts in Canada, Israel, and South Africa have affirmed the fundamental right of all citizens, including prisoners, to be part of the electorate.

“Florida’s policy of disfranchising former felons – essentially declaring them non-citizens for life – is way out of line with the rest of the country and completely inconsistent with the standards of democratic nations,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “People with past felony convictions who have successfully completed their sentences and paid their debt to society deserve every right to reclaim their most fundamental right in a democracy, the right to vote, and have a voice in their community.”

Florida is one of only seven states to strip people of their civil and voting rights for the remainder of their lives following conviction of a felony, even after completion of their sentences. Loss of civil rights takes away not only the right to vote, but also the right to hold state licenses necessary for many jobs. Only the Clemency Board – made up of Governor Bush and his Cabinet members – has the power to restore a person’s voting and civil rights.

Florida lawmakers incorporated the felony clause into the Florida Constitution in 1868, during the post-Reconstruction period, in an attempt to exclude newly freed black voters from the polls. They did this by tying the loss of voting rights to alleged crimes disproportionately committed by blacks, while excluding offenses disproportionately committed by whites. Today, approximately 30 percent of African-American men in Florida cannot vote because of this system.

Recognizing the importance of helping former felons regain their civil and voting rights, the ACLU of Florida continues – through its Voting Rights Restoration Project – to engage in community outreach, grassroots organizing and litigation geared toward helping former felons navigate the lengthy and often-times frustrating clemency process.

For more on the campaign to restore the vote in Florida, visit: .

To view a flash animation piece on felony disfranchisement laws and the drug war, a one-time collaboration between the Right to Vote Campaign and the communications team of the Drug Policy Alliance, visit

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