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Battling Felon Voter Disenfranchisement

Steve Newborn
Religious and community leaders address the gathering with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, at left

Groups of community and religious leaders held news conferences throughout the state today to call for restoration of the right to vote for convicted felons who have completed their sentences. One such group met in Tampa.

A nonprofit group called The Sentencing Project estimates nearly 6 million Americans are affected. And about 1 1/2 million Floridians - nearly one in every 10 Floridians - can't vote. That's the highest rate in the country.

An estimated 5.85 million Americans won’t be able to vote due to prior felony convictions, according to an estimate from the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit think tank. Of those, roughly 44 percent are estimated to be felons who live in the 12 states that still restrict voting rights after sentences have been served, a practice that excludes as many as 1 in 10 voting-age residents of Florida, the state with the highest rates of felon disenfranchisement.   Such policies have a disproportionate impact on blacks, restricting the vote for roughly 1 in 13 voting-age blacks nationwide. But in some states, the rate is much higher. More than 20 percent of voting-age blacks in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia will not be able to vote due to felony convictions—whether or not they have fully served their sentences. In six more states, such policies affect between 10 percent and 20 percent of black adults.

Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor is co-sponsoring a measure that would reinstate a provision of the Voting Rights Act that had been struck down by the high court.

"I think most people believe in fairness, they understand that the march toward civil rights has been a constant through the history of America," she said at the Tampa event, held at the Supervisor of Elections office, "and this is one where Florida really is an unfortunately outlier, and most people do not support an old Jim Crow-type law in operation in Florida, because if Floridians can't reach their full potential, then our state cannot reach its full potential, and that effects everyone."

Similar gatherings were held in Tallahassee, Orlando and Palm Beach County.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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