By Trevor Aaronson
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
When Floridians go to the polls this year, they will not only have an opportunity to decide their next governor and senator, but also who will be allowed to vote in subsequent elections.
States With Most Disenfranchised Voters
Source: The Sentencing Project
Amendment 4, called the “Voting Restoration Amendment,” on the November 6 ballot is a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights for Florida’s 1.7 million convicted felons. Currently, Florida has about 13 million registered voters.
Florida is home to nearly one-third of all disenfranchised American voters. They are prohibited from voting even after serving the entirety of their prison and probationary sentences for the crimes they’ve committed. In Florida, as across the nation, this form of voter disenfranchisement disproportionately affects African-Americans.
Maine and Vermont are the only two states in which felons never lose the right to vote. In most states, felons’ voting rights are restored automatically or after a prescribed period of time following the completion of their sentence. In 13 states, including Florida, ex-offenders must receive a governor’s pardon or complete additional waitings periods before voting again.
Rights restoration practices vary widely among these 13 states, and Florida’s is among the toughest. In the Sunshine State, felons who have served their time must have a hearing before lthe Florida Board of Executive Clemency, which consists of the governor, the attorney general, chief financial officer and commissioner of agriculture.
The board decides if the applicant is deserving enough to have civil rights restored. Voting rights advocates describe the process as arbitrary and capricious, and Gov. Rick Scott and has proven much less willing to restore voting rights than his predecessors.
As of September 1, more than seven and a half years into his two terms, Scott has restored the voting rights of 3,216 ex-offenders. Former Gov. Charlie Crist restored the voting rights for 55,315 felons during his four-year term and former Gov. Jeb Bush approved 76,736 cases during his eight years in office.
Amendment 4, if approved by at least 60 percent of the voters, would mandate that voting rights be restored automatically to felons who have completed their sentences and paid all court costs and fees. Those convicted of murder and felony sex crimes would not be eligible for this automatic restoration and would still have to win approval after a clemency board hearing.
So who are these ex-offenders wanting to get their voting rights back?
In 2016, as part of the award–winning documentary short “Unforgiven,” Alexandra Clinton, Adeel Ahmed, Ashwin Gandbhir and Asad Faruqi told the story of one of these ex-offenders, Roderick Kemp, a politically active Fort Lauderdale man whose voting rights were stripped away due to a 1986 cocaine possession charge. “You took that qualification away from me for something that happened a lifetime ago,” Kemp told the filmmakers.
After FCIR released “Unforgiven” — which was distributed through partnerships with The Atlantic, TIME and the Miami Herald — Kemp received a letter from the clemency board three months later: His voting rights had been restored.
But the restoration of Kemp’s rights was an exception, owing in large part to the publicity he received as a result of FCIR’s documentary short. Kemp has since become an activist lobbying for approval of Amendment 4.
Kemp’s story is in many ways the story of 1.7 million ex-offenders in Florida who have lost their right to vote. With three weeks until Election Day, FCIR is re-releasing “Unforgiven” to encourage the conversation about voter disenfranchisement in Florida: