TALLAHASSEE - - One in ten Florida adults -- and nearly one in four African Americans – cannot vote because of a felony conviction, by far the highest rate in the nation, a report released on Thursday indicated.
The report by The Sentencing Project, an advocate for voting rights, found that more than 1.5 million felons were disenfranchised in Florida in 2010, including 1.3 million who were longer behind bars.
Florida, a big swing state known for close elections and snafus at the polls, sends an extraordinary number of its residents to prison and has imposed some of the nation's toughest requirements for restoring voting rights. Most states restore voting rights automatically once a felon leaves prison.
"Florida does have a high rate of criminal punishment as well as having one of the most-restrictive laws in the nation," said Christopher Uggen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, who wrote the report. "That picture in Florida is much, much different than in other states, where disenfranchisement ends when correctional supervision ends."
The number of disenfranchised Floridians could increase because of recent actions by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-run Legislature to purge the voting rolls of felons and non-citizens. The issue has drawn national attention this election year largely because of its possible impact on a very close presidential campaign and a U.S. Senate race.
One of Scott's first actions after taking office last year was to reverse rules created by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007, which allowed most former felons to become voters after completing their punishment.
Under new rules drawn up by Attorney General Pam Bondi, those convicted of non-violent crimes must wait five years after their release before they can apply to Scott, Bondi and other members of the state clemency board for a hearing. Those who had been convicted of violent crimes must wait seven years.
Some prosecutors and law enforcement officials backed the new rule, saying a delay should be imposed while former felons prove their commitment to living crime-free. After a clemency session last month, Scott said he was mystified about why local elections officials keep allowing some former felons to vote.
The governor's office did not respond on Thursday to requests for comment.
The report released on Thursday found that 5.85 million Americans were forbidden to vote as of 2010 because they were former felons. The bulk of them lived in Florida and several Southern states with restrictive laws. The number was up from 1.17 million in 1976 and 3.34 million in 1996.
Florida led the nation in 2010, with a disenfranchisement rate of 10.4 percent. The rate for African Americans was also the highest in the nation: 23 percent.
"Every time a person is disenfranchised in a community, that weakens that community's political voice," said Desmond Meade, a former felon and now a law student at Florida International University who leads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. "And once their political voice has been weakened, they find it harder to get the attention of elected officials as far as public services, public safety, schools or parks, anything like that."
Even slight shifts in the electorate can make a crucial difference in a close election.
The 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes in Florida. Scott's victory margin in 2010 was 61,550. The number of disenfranchised former felons in the state that year was 1,3323,360, nearly a third of them African American.
"Disenfranchising individuals plays a significant role in controlling the outcomes of elections," Meade said.