Florida and Iowa are making it harder for felons to get their voting rights back after they've served their sentences, a move, critics say that disproportionately affects minorities.
The Florida Board of Executive Clemency, headed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, reversed predecessor Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's policy that automatically restored voting rights to non-violent offenders upon the completion of their sentences. The policy requires ex-felons to wait five years before applying to regain rights.
Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad similarly reversed an executive order by Democrat Gov. Tom Vilsack that automatically restored voting rights of all ex-felons. They now have to apply to regain voting rights.
Those two states, as well as Virginia and Kentucky, are the only ones that withhold voting rights for all those convicted of a felony beyond the end of their sentence or probation and leave the return of those rights to the discretion of the governor or clemency boards, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Sentencing Project, a group advocating reforms in prison and sentencing policy, says 60% of the prison system population is comprised of African Americans and Latinos.
"Voting is a fundamental right of citizenship and there are other suitable punishments," said Marc Mauer, of the Sentencing Project.
The American Civil Liberties Union is lobbying for the Democracy Restoration Act, federal legislation that seeks to create a uniform standard for voting in federal elections and allow people with past convictions to vote in federal elections as long as they are no longer incarcerated. The bill has been introduced to the House and the Senate, but no hearings have been scheduled.
"Criminal disenfranchisement laws are rooted in Jim Crow ... unfortunately the impact of those laws continue today," said Deborah Vagins, ACLU senior legislative counsel.
Florida resident Vikki Hankins is among those affected by the new policy. Convicted in 1990 for a non-violent drug offense and sentenced to 23 years in prison, she was released on parole in 2008. After completing parole, she applied to get her voting rights back but found out that she would not be able to apply until 2017.
Hankins, an author and paralegal, says she feels the policy is politically-motivated.
"The ulterior motive, in my opinion, is to shut out the black and Democratic vote ... that's the bottom line," she said.
Lane Wright, the press secretary for Florida's Scott, wrote in an e-mail that the governor believes felons must prove they are crime-free before those rights are restored.
"Some people look to make any issue they can about race or politics. The issue of convicted felons voting rights is about neither one," Wright wrote.
By Shawn Ghuman, USA TODAY