JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. In a year where a tight presidential race could be determined by a few swing states, the issue of who is allowed to vote could turn the election, which is why recent moves in Florida and Iowa are getting so much attention.
Bucking a larger trend, these two states are making it harder for former felons to vote. This comes as a number of other states in recent years have made the process easier.
Should ex-felons be allowed to vote? And what difference might it make? If you're a former felon, have you been able to reclaim your right to vote? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, on our Opinion Page, Buzz Bissinger calls for a five-year suspension for Penn State football. But first we're joined by Lucy Morgan, she's senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times, who this week is in western North Carolina. Welcome.
LUCY MORGAN: Hi, thank you, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: So update us on what has happened in Florida. As I understand it, when the former Governor Charlie Crist came in, he changed the voting rights law to automatically restore voting rights for nonviolent offenders when they have served their sentence, when it was up. But now Governor Rick Scott, also a Republican, has changed the law again. What did he do?
MORGAN: Well, he has made - has installed a five-year waiting period before nonviolent people can apply and reversing essentially what Charlie Crist did. The restrictions on restoring the rights of felons have been in place since the Jim Crow era. So there's always a racist connotation to them when people look at them. But in March of 2011, Governor Scott and the Cabinet, with a lot of help from Attorney General Pam Bondi, overturned the relaxation of those rules.
And now there's been, like, a 95-percent drop in the number of people even applying to get their voting rights back.
LUDDEN: And did the governor say why he was doing this?
MORGAN: He takes a real law-and-order, conservative view of it and wanted to dramatically restrict those that could come back and vote. Of course, as in most states, about 60 percent of the inmates are African-American and Latino. So you dramatically reduce the minority vote when you do this.
Republicans don't usually fare well when minorities vote, and given that we have a Republican governor, a Republican Cabinet and a Republican legislature, this is what we get from it.
LUDDEN: So tinged with the - all that - a fraught election year can bring here, it's a political issue, I can see. Tell us about what is the process for those who, then, want to apply, appeal to have their voting rights restored?
MORGAN: First they have to wait five years. They have to be nonviolent offenders. They have to have served their sentence, completed any probation they were on and paid any restitution that they were required to pay, all of which is pretty cumbersome and rather hard for many minorities.
Then they have to go through an application process that can take five years to complete.
LUDDEN: Just the process alone?
LUDDEN: Why is that?
MORGAN: It just - they have a tremendous backlog. At the moment, they've got about a 30,000-application backlog in Florida. With budget cuts that have dramatically cut the staff of those who can deal with those petitions, combined with the change in rules, you're talking many years before a - someone who's convicted of even the simplest nonviolent felony can expect to regain his voting rights.
LUDDEN: And then as I understand, there's a clemency board that people - do they actually have to go in person to Tallahassee, and who's on this clemency board?
MORGAN: The governor and Cabinet, the same group that voted to further restrict it, sits as a clemency board, and they individually consider each of these cases. They meet four times a year, usually for a morning, and the - so there's a limit there. That becomes a bottleneck as to how many people are going to get heard.
And people can come individually, and generally over the years, the more successful ones do come individually. But many of them get their rights back by just submitting all the paperwork that's required.
However, the paperwork is difficult for people of low - who don't have online access to get the applications or really good command of English to fill them out.
LUDDEN: All right, and if this application, this intense application process fails, any other recourse?
MORGAN: Has it what?
LUDDEN: Any other way they can get their rights back?
MORGAN: No, there is no other way. In addition to the applications they have to fill out, they have to submit letters of reference or character affidavits from past employers, clergy, neighbors, anybody. So, you know, it is a process that takes some savvy.
There are a number of different organizations that have tried to help the felons fill out all this paperwork and get it turned in.
LUDDEN: All right, and Lucy, is there any sense of how popular or unpopular this move has been in Florida? Any polling on that?
MORGAN: I think it's very popular among Republicans, not at all popular among Democrats. It's a very partisan issue in Florida.
LUDDEN: All right, well, Lucy Morgan, senior correspondent for Tampa Bay Times, she joined us by phone from her home in North Carolina, thanks so much for your time.
MORGAN: Thank you.
LUDDEN: And we're going to talk about this more. We're joined now by two guests: Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, which is a nonprofit organization that works for sentencing reform, he's here in Studio 3A. Welcome, Marc.
MARC MAUER: Good to be here.
LUDDEN: And also Roger Clegg is the president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. He's on the line from Falls Church, Virginia. Hi there.
ROGER CLEGG: Hi, how are you doing?
LUDDEN: Good. Marc, let's start with you first to get your reaction to the law in Florida. And can you put that in the broader national context for us?
MAUER: Well, the broad context is that, you know, we've had some of these policies for in some cases 200 years. But the impact is far greater now than it's ever been before because of the explosion in the criminal justice system over the last four decades or so.
So we've gone from about a million people disenfranchised in the 1970s to nearly six million today. The racial disparities in the criminal justice system then translate into high disparities in disenfranchisement. So the estimates we released last week show that about one of every 13 African-Americans nationally will not be able to participate in the election this year.
So we're not just talking about a trivial number. These are very substantial numbers of people, in addition to the fundamental questions about democracy.
LUDDEN: And what do you make, then, of this clemency board, if that's what it's called, in Florida, the whole - the process for appealing?
MAUER: Well, it's an extremely convoluted process. Even under former Governor's Crist's policy, which I certainly admired, the changes he instituted, the fundamental problem is that in the law in Florida is that you're disenfranchised for life unless you can get your rights restored through some process.
So we've been seeing in recent years basically governors tinkering with the process in one direction or another. But even under Governor Crist's move, which resulted in a substantial number of applications, still hundreds of thousands of people either didn't know about the process, didn't have support for the process, unlike most other states had to go through this very cumbersome procedure just to get their fundamental rights restored.
LUDDEN: But I thought under Crist, it was automatic. Do some states just have an automatic restoration, or is there always some sort of a paperwork process here?
MAUER: In most states, either when you leave prison or when you complete your parole or probation supervision, it's essentially an automatic process. Under Governor Crist, it still varied depending on the type of crime you were convicted of, and some people had to go through a more cumbersome process than others. But substantial numbers, it was at least quasi-automatic.
LUDDEN: And you think this could actually have impact on the votes in a place like Florida?
MAUER: Yeah, I certainly, I don't think we should view this as a partisan issue. I think it's a fundamental question of should people with felony convictions at a certain point have the right to vote or not, just as when we debated whether women should have the right to vote, 100 years. It doesn't matter who they would vote for, but clearly the numbers are so substantial now that it could be having an impact.
We just need to look at the 2000 election in Florida - presidential election decided by 537 votes. The estimates are on the day of the election that year, there may have been 600,000 people who had completed their sentence yet were not eligible to vote. So how many would have voted? Who would they have voted for? We can only speculate. But clearly we may have decided a national election based on that policy.
LUDDEN: All right. Roger Clegg, you've been sitting here listening in. What is your take on the changes that have happened in Florida and this issue generally?
CLEGG: Well, I agree with a couple things that Marc said. As he noted the practice of disenfranchising felons has been around for hundreds of years. In fact, it goes back thousands of years, to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. And, you know, the basic idea is that if you're not willing to follow the law, then you can't claim a right to make the law for everyone else.
And I also agree with Marc that, you know, this shouldn't be a partisan issue. I certainly don't favor the disenfranchisement of felons because of, you know, whatever impact it might have on an election. I might have the same position if, you know, African-Americans were voting decisively for conservatives rather than for liberals.
LUDDEN: But what is the argument for delaying? I mean, you know, these people who have come out of a prison term. So they have been sentenced. You know, a jury or judge has sentenced them, given them X number of years, and, you know, maybe there's even been parole and probation afterwards. And still there's this new waiting period and process. What's the argument for extending it beyond time served?
CLEGG: Well, I think that there are all kinds of consequences that follow from having committed a serious crime, even after you've served your sentence. I mean, for instance, we don't allow felons to possess firearms. We don't allow felons to serve on juries. We don't allow felons to hold, you know, jobs in public schools and things like that.
The idea is that just because you have walked out of prison doesn't mean that you've turned over a new leaf. In fact, this report that the Sentencing Project, released last week, as I read it, suggests a recidivism rate of 66 percent. You know, two out of three people are going to be back in prison.
So I don't think that it makes sense to assume that because somebody has walked out of prison that they've turned over a new leaf. I think it makes sense to wait some period of time, make sure that there actually has been...
LUDDEN: All right, we're going to continue this conversation in just a moment. We're speaking with Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity and Marc Mauer with The Sentencing Project. And we'd like to hear from any former felons in our audience. Have you regained your voting rights? Call us at 800-989-8255. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Jennifer Ludden. In the U.S., if you're convicted of a felony, the sentence often also means disenfranchisement. Felons in Maine and Vermont don't have to worry about it, but in most states, felons lose their right to vote while they're incarcerated, and once they're out, many have to endure waiting periods and an application process before their right is reinstated.
It's a punishment that's been around since ancient Greece and Rome, but it's relevant now especially because of this year's tight presidential contest. If you are an ex-felon, have you regained your right to vote? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Marc Mauer is one of my guests. He's the executive director of The Sentencing Project, which just released a new report on felon disenfranchisement in the U.S. Also joining us, Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. He's in office in Falls Church, Virginia.
And let's take a caller. We have Joe(ph) in Tampa. I'm trying to get Joe on the line here. OK, there we are, Joe, can you hear me?
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
JOE: OK, about - over a decade ago, I was in my teens, over 18, and I committed a nonviolent criminal offense, which was a felony, served my time and whatnot but had assumed under the law that I lost my voting rights along with gun rights, so on and so forth. And then recently, getting so interested in the political system, I looked up how to get my voting rights back and found that because I had what's called a withhold of adjudication during that trial over a decade ago, I actually got my voting rights automatically restored.
So I signed up to get my voter registration card, and it came in the mail about a month and a half ago.
LUDDEN: So you were pleasantly surprised?
JOE: I'm sorry?
LUDDEN: You were pleasantly surprised.
JOE: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I hadn't been voting for about 15 years, and it's sad that I could have all this time, so...
LUDDEN: Well, do you think that it's fair to have a longer process and sort of wait and have someone prove that they are law-abiding, you know, for a few years after they get out?
JOE: From what I understand, from the conversations I've heard on this recently, there are actually states that allow prisoners to vote while they're in jail. I think - I mean, we're all American citizens. Some of us have done wrong at times. I don't believe - I mean, I understand recidivism rates, but I don't believe that that applies to everyone, and even if it just applies - even it applies to a broad majority of people, the small percentage of people who aren't going to go back in the system shouldn't have to suffer for everybody else's misconduct.
LUDDEN: All right, well, Joe, thanks so much for the call.
JOE: Thank you.
LUDDEN: And let's get another caller here, Alan(ph) also in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Hi there, Alan.
ALAN: Hello. I'm a nonviolent offender. I have a record. And unfortunately, I was unable to get my rights back. I applied when Charlie Crist was governor. He was a sort of a reformed liberal type of Republican governor, and he had given people their rights back. But when Rick Scott came in, I was still in the process of applying.
Rick Scott just went into the legislature one morning, when nobody was there, and he made an announcement that he's not restoring people's rights, and it was pushed through real fast, and that was the end of that. And I lost an opportunity to get my rights back.
LUDDEN: All right, are you going - all right, there we are. Thank you so much.
ALAN: No, I'm still here.
LUDDEN: Are you going to go through the process now? What does it mean for you now? Is it that it's it, that's over, it was decided?
ALAN: Well, I have to wait five years. Ironically enough, I mean, I am Caucasian. I know that I would say 60 to 70 percent of the people who are out there who are, you know, offenders are either of Latin or African-American derivation. And the reality is that those people will most likely vote Democratic. So there is definitely a political aspect to this because there are a lot of Florida elections that get decided by the, you know, less than six or eight points.
And, you know, the votes of people who got their - would get their rights back could most definitely influence an election. The ironic part is that if I had had my rights back during this next presidential election, although I'm registered as a Democrat, I'm sort of independent, I would have voted for Mitt Romney. And the Republicans lost my vote on this round even though their intention I'm sure was to reduce the votes of the Democrats.
LUDDEN: That's a big charge there. Alan, thanks so much for the call. Roger Clegg, what about that accusation there, that this is really political?
CLEGG: Well, I don't know to what extent it's political or not. All I can say is what I said before, Jennifer, which is that these laws have been around for a long, long time. And they've been supported by all kinds of political parties over the ages. So I don't think that it makes sense to say that, oh, well, if this group - you know, that the reason for this law is because this or that political viewpoint is trying to be disenfranchised.
I'm sure there are some people who favor these laws for partisan reasons, and I'm sure there are probably lots more people who favor getting rid of them for partisan political reasons. But I don't think - I agree with Marc that this should not be about partisan politics.
LUDDEN: Marc Mauer, you said that, as well, but yet there is this perception that we've just heard about here.
MAUER: Yeah, it's hard to read the mind of Governor Scott or anyone else. You know, we have seen a trend in recent years actually towards reform of these policies because they had been hidden from public view for so long. Once the data came out, once the philosophical questions came out, there's been a real surge in interest in scaling back.
And, you know, the idea that these laws have been around for 200 years, therefore it's a good idea, well, 200 years ago, under the laws of this country, women couldn't vote, African-Americans, illiterates, poor people. So longevity is not necessarily a good sign of what's a reasonable policy in the 21st century.
CLEGG: Well, that's true, but of course just because something's been around for a long time doesn't mean that it's racist, either. And the reason that I cited the fact, a second ago, that it's been around for a long time is to make the limited point that it doesn't prove anything about whether there is partisan motivation.
LUDDEN: Right, all right. Let's take another call here. Daniel(ph) is in Richmond, Virginia. Hi there, Daniel.
DANIEL: Hi, great conversation. Back in 2000 or so, I was 18 and convicted of a robbery and got sentenced to 53 years and served eight of it. The rest of it is suspended over my head. And here in Virginia, the only way to get your rights back is to go through the governor and have him either pardon or restore your rights.
I hired an attorney, trying to figure out ways to get my right to vote back, and apparently for me, because of that suspended sentence and the ways how that sentence works, it's just about impossible for me. And I know many other people who because of the way - how sentencing is in Virginia especially - that suspended sentence is almost a guarantee to not have any of their rights restored.
Many people while I was in prison that I would speak to about political issues became very, very politically aware while in prison, learning what their rights were, what rights they'd lost, you know, and a lot of people just feeling that it was almost hopeless for them to regain anything.
I know here in Virginia that the governor has recently made it a little bit more streamline for nonviolent offenders to get their rights restored, but for others who have the suspended sentence, it doesn't do anything. The whole sentence has to be terminated in order to petition, and for most, I'd say, that's not the case.
LUDDEN: All right, Daniel, thank you so much. And speaking of people getting politically motivated in prison, we have a letter from a listener who asked to remain anonymous, who writes: I was convicted of a nonviolent felony and lost voting rights and gun rights when Governor Crist was elected in Florida. I received my voting rights automatically restored. I was surprised and excited, as I am extremely involved in political affairs.
Today I have a master's degree and work as a tax-paying citizen. I know I'm in the minority of those who turn their lives around, but I feel everyone deserves a chance.
Roger Clegg, what about - you know, you made the point that this isn't political or racist, it goes back many, many, many - a century, years and centuries. But there is a disparate impact on African-Americans and Latinos. I mean, in reality it does hit them harder. Does that make it harder to say look, it's not political?
CLEGG: Well, no, I don't think it does. I mean, look at it this way: These laws also have even more pronounced disparate impact on the basis of sex. You know, men commit many more crimes than women do. But I don't think that anybody can say, well, these laws are sexist.
You know, we don't let everybody vote. We don't let children vote. We don't let non-citizens vote. We don't let people who are mentally incompetent vote. And we don't let people who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens vote.
You know, we have certain minimum objective standards of responsibility and trustworthiness and commitment to our system before we allow people to participate in the sacred enterprise of self-government. And people who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens don't meet those standards.
And, you know, these nonviolent crimes, you know, selling drugs is a big deal. Voter fraud is a big deal. Treason is a big deal. Bribery of public officials is a big deal. These are all nonviolent crimes. But I don't think that it follows that oh, well, it's no big deal, and those people should be allowed to vote.
LUDDEN: All right, Marc Mauer?
MAUER: Well, you know, we don't let children vote for the same reason we don't let them drive cars or drink or join the military. They don't have a level of maturity that's the same as adults. People who have been convicted of a crime are in a very different situation like that. So I think when we start to set any kind of character tests - which essentially is what's being advocated here - it's a rather slippery slope. When I first registered to vote many years ago, nobody asked me if I was a good guy, if I drank too much, if I took care of my younger brother or anything like that.
In a democracy, we all get to exercise our right to vote, and it becomes a very sloppy process, I think, when we're equating public safety questions with fundamental rights of citizenship.
CLEGG: I think we can have a strong presumption, you know, in a democracy that, you know, all adults should be allowed to vote. But I think that once you've committed a felony, it makes sense to suspend that presumption. You know, the person has shown that...
LUDDEN: Well, suspend it longer than the time that the society has deemed that person should serve? Isn't that serving of the sentence supposed to be paying your debt to society?
CLEGG: No, no, because, again, there are all kinds of ways where even though you've paid your debt to society to the extent that you are now allowed to leave prison and have that amount of freedom doesn't mean that you're allowed to possess a firearm, doesn't mean that you're allowed to serve on juries. And Marc will tell you that he thinks that people who are still in prison should be allowed to vote. So...
LUDDEN: As Maine and Vermont do allow. There are two states that do allow that. That's right.
CLEGG: That's right. So it's not like - I mean, he agrees with me that there's not a - this fit between, you know, serving your debt to society and being allowed to vote. He thinks you should be allowed to vote even when you haven't...
CLEGG: ...paid your debt to society to that extent.
LUDDEN: All right. Let's get a couple of calls, here. We have State Representative Perry Thurston on the line from Florida. Hi, there.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE PERRY THURSTON: Good afternoon.
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
THURSTON: Thank you. Thank you. You know, I heard the gentlemen keep giving the example of carrying a firearm. Well, when we are asking for individuals to have the right to vote, we're not saying that they should be allowed to carry a firearm. The basic right to vote, I think, should go to everyone. And then when we - you know, this process here in Florida, years before Governor Crist came in and instituted the process, the black community in the state of Florida have been advocating for some type of change.
So when Rick Scott and the Cabinet came in and, immediately, one of the first things that they did once they were elected to office was to extend (unintelligible) for five and seven years. Now, while Maine and Vermont has a procedure whereby individuals in jail can vote, there are a lot of other states who at least allow individuals once they've served their time to vote. And I can't understand how this gentleman would say that individuals in those states should have a different process than individuals in Florida.
And let's address this from the standpoint of the Southern states. I heard the gentleman from Virginia, we're talking about Florida. This process of disenfranchising has been mainly in the Southern states, where the majority of the black residents are. So, yes, it is politically motivated. But I don't want you to think that the community felt any better when Lawton Chiles refused to change the law.
LUDDEN: All right.
THURSTON: The law needs to be changed to give everyone the right, and we do applaud Charlie Crist in doing that, not withstanding the fact that he didn't fund the process so hundreds of thousands of people who had actually went through the process, their application is just that they're on the floor.
LUDDEN: All right. Thank you so much for your phone call. Appreciate the time. Let me just note that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And one last time - one last phone call in, here. Larry is in Orlando, Florida. Hi, Larry.
LARRY: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I pled guilty to felony 14 years ago. The case was pled down to a month in jail. I served my month in jail, went through all of the probation, all of the counseling, all of that kind of thing. And so, again, I thought I had paid my debt to society, but I soon found out in Florida, you don't get your civil rights restored right away. Well, for the last seven years, I had been petitioning the clemency board to let me vote again, and they said that the only way that you can do that is to go before the governor that meets once a month for a date to hear cases and decide whether he's going to grant it or not. And I recently called and asked them how long it would take for me to get to the governor, and they told me there was 44,000 cases in front of me.
LUDDEN: All right. Larry, we got to leave it there. There is a big backlog there. We've heard lots of budget cuts. Larry, thanks so much for the call. Roger Clegg, we just have a few minutes left. But, you know, appealing to the governor, it does seem the process is inherently political.
CLEGG: I don't think it has to be, and I think it varies a lot from state to state as to how efficient the process is. And, yeah, the fact that there is a backlog doesn't prove that it's political. It may prove that it's, you know, very cumbersome and inefficient and all that. And I'm all for improving, you know, any problems in the Florida system. I'm not endorsing the Florida system. I'm not that familiar with it. But, you know, one of your callers pointed out that the Virginia governor - who happens to be a Republican - has done a terrific job in streamlining the system.
Of course, Governor Crist is also a Republican. I don't think that the fact that there are failings in some of these state systems proves that they're partisan, and again, I don't have any problem with improving the systems. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let's not say that, well, because, you know, the Florida system is inefficient, therefore, criminals all over the country should be allowed to vote automatically.
LUDDEN: All right. Marc Mauer, you get the last word, here.
MAUER: Well, let's just think about this from the point of view of public safety in the community. We have people coming out of prison. They've got two strikes against them. It's in everyone's interest that they can rejoin the community in a positive way. So we want them to have a job. We want them to have a place to live. We want them to be connected with positive institutions in the community. If the message we send to them is, yes, you've got to do all these things, but you're still a second-class citizen, I don't think that helps any of us in terms of getting them integrated, becoming a law-abiding people. That's very problematic for all of us.
LUDDEN: All right. Well, I'm sure this issue will continue to be debated. Marc Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project, and he joined us here in Studio 3A. We also were joined by Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity. He joined us from Falls Church, Virginia. Thanks so much, both of you.
CLEGG: Thank you.
MAUER: Thanks for having us.
LUDDEN: Coming up, Buzz Bissinger is on our Opinion Page. He says Penn State should pay for the Sandusky cover-up with a five-year suspension from football. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.