TAMPA—Reva Iman is a pillar in her community.
“Hi, Ms. Reva!” a gang of kindergarten-aged children screamed in unison, as we walked through the Robles Park Village public housing projects, one of the city’s oldest, on an overcast day in October. Iman, the complex’s resident council president, seemed to greet people with every step she took in this palm tree-lined neighborhood. She asked them about their day, she asked after their families, and most importantly, she asked whether they’d registered to vote.
When a member of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign visited Robles Park several months ago, Iman offered to give them a tour. As she wound her way through the complex, knocking on doors with the campaign worker, Iman learned something about her community that shook her to the core.
“We come to find out that the mass majority of them could not vote,” she recalled.
Most adults have criminal histories in this 483-unit village, Iman explained, and in Florida—more so than most other parts of the country—that often means no voting.
“It was a great deal of a shock,” she said. “That many people in this area.”
It’s virtually impossible to verify her claim, since data about voter ineligibility isn’t available on a block-by-block level. But nearly half the roughly 15 residents I interviewed said they couldn't vote because of a past criminal conviction. Few agreed to speak on the record.
Research suggests that if any neighborhood in America could be cut out of the electoral process, it’d be some place like this tiny, mostly black pocket of Tampa. Florida is the worst state when it comes to felony disenfranchisement, according to a report published this month by the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform. Nearly half of all adult Americans who’ve lost the right to vote, after serving both their prison sentences and probation, call the state home. Another report, published by California-based criminal-justice reform advocacy group Live Free, named Hillsborough County (whose county seat and largest city is Tampa) as the fifth worst county in America when it comes to mass incarceration.
What’s more, these consequences reverberate across America: Hillsborough County is known as one of the swingiest counties in Florida—the must-win swing state for anyone who wants to become president. No candidate has won Florida in a presidential election without winning the county since 1960.
One in five (21%) black adult Floridians are unable to vote, according to the Sentencing Project. Three other states—Kentucky (26%), Tennessee (21%) and Virginia (22%)—also share that glaring statistic, but Florida’s status as both a swing state and hotbed of voter disenfranchisement raises deeper questions about our electoral process.
It’s democracy, with a caveat.
“I got a felony,” said Mike Johnson, 29, who has lived in Robles Park since 2000, when I asked if he was registered to vote. “A lot of people out here [are] like that.”
Johnson hasn’t been able to vote for three years, and has two more to go before he can apply to have his rights restored. Florida is one of 12 states that denies voting rights to people convicted of a felony, even after they've served their sentence, according to the Sentencing Project. But the state is only one of three that permanently disenfranchises the formerly incarcerated unless a clemency board grants them voting rights, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute. Even then, though, it’s increasingly a long shot.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, undid years of progress in restoring civil rights to those convicted of a felony, an effort that former governor Charlie Crist undertook. In 2007, Crist—who was a Republican at the time, but has since become a Democrat—changed Florida’s clemency policy to allow people convicted of a felony to get their voting rights back within 30 days of release, so long as the governor and at least two members of the state’s Board of Executive Clemency approve.
"Some who favor the current system argue that restoring civil rights is somehow 'weak on crime,' as if restoring the right to vote, to serve on a jury, or to work lessens the punishment or encourages a person to commit new crimes," Crist wrote in an op-ed at the time. "In fact, the opposite should be true."
More than 155,000 people who were convicted of a felony had their rights restored between 2007 and early 2010 because of this policy shift, according to data provided by the Florida Commission on Offender Review.
But Scott halted that progress in March 2011, shortly after entering office, by introducing a policy that includes a new mandatory five-year wait time just to be heard by the clemency board. Between 2011 and mid-October of this year, only 2,251 formerly incarcerated people had their voting rights restored, according to Florida Commission on Offender Review data. On average, 38,000 per year had their rights restored under Crist, but that dropped to 402 per year under Scott. Likewise, the number of people convicted of a felony submitting applications to have their cases reviewed by the clemency board dipped sharply from an average of 96,196 per year under Crist to 4,901 per year under Scott.
“In Florida, it's a rapidly expanding subclass of U.S. citizens that have no voice in their government, regardless of which way they might be inclined to vote,” Mark Schlakman, senior program director at Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights and former special counsel to former Florida governor Lawton Chiles, told me.
About 60,000 formerly incarcerated people in Florida become eligible to petition to get their voting rights back every year, Schlakman added. The state has nearly 1.5 million would-be voters who aren’t eligible to take part in elections after serving time and probation, according to the Sentencing Project. But at the current rate that Scott’s office is clearing cases, this list won’t likely go down any time soon.
“We’re talking about individual liberties and rights, but we're really talking about the overall integrity of the elections process because if you remove so many people from it for whatever reason, you in fact are skewing the outcomes,” Schlakman said.
He also stressed that this isn’t a strictly partisan issue, even though it seems that way to many people. While most affected by felony disenfranchisement are white because they make up more than three-fourths of Florida’s population, black people are still disproportionately affected. Nobody can say for sure how these votes would impact an election in one direction or the other, though historically, blacks in Florida tend to vote Democratic, while whites tend to vote Republican.
Darryl Paulson, a retired University of South Florida professor who specializes in elections, has said Democrats want to restore voting rights to people convicted of a felony because they think they'd benefit; Republicans, on the other hand, feel doing so would harm them.
“Governor Scott’s goal is [100%] participation and 0% fraud, and hopes everyone goes out to vote. Our Secretary of State Ken Detzner has been very focused on making sure we have a smooth election," a spokesperson for Scott’s office told me in an email.
"When it comes to felons, in order for them to have their rights restored, they have to demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime, show a willingness to request to have their rights restored, and show restitution to the victims of their crimes.”
There's two parts to the issue of mass incarceration, according to Mike Reed, a local organizer with Organize Now, a nonprofit that focuses on social justice issues. First, people of color get locked up at disproportionate rates; then, when they return to their economically and racially segregated neighborhoods, they’re further marginalized.
“People get elected, they make decisions, and these people—these neighborhoods—don’t have a seat at the table,” Reed said, adding that he’s seen the effect felony disenfranchisement has on the mostly black communities of East Tampa and Ybor City. “After a long time, the neighborhoods start to become apathetic.”
Florida’s problem can also quickly become America’s problem, too. The difference of a few hundred votes in the state determined the outcome of the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. So, people are pushing back, pressuring the state to increase access to voting.
Rodney Johnson (no relation to Mike Johnson) consistently stood in front of a clothing store at a strip mall in the Egypt Lake-Leto neighborhood of Tampa for months, helping people register to vote, as he did on a recent October afternoon. Jovial and sharp-spoken, Johnson, estimated that he had registered up to 600 voters over the last few months, as part of his work with Florida Institute of Reform and Empowerment, a nonpartisan organization affiliated with Organize Now.
“I’m unable to vote. I’m a convicted felon,” Johnson, a black man, told me. “The more I do this canvassing job, the more I’m learning about politics.”
“I’m learning that that’s the way you change things: You have to vote.”
For those unable to register for various reasons, Johnson keeps a stack of petitions calling for a state referendum on the automatic restoration of rights for people convicted of a felony, on-hand. The petition has received enough signatures to get the Florida Supreme Court to check proposed language for the referendum to make sure it’s legally valid. If all goes well, the referendum could be up for vote within a few years’ time.
“When we get our rights back, it’s giving us a second chance,” Johnson said. “That’s important because we might be felons, but at the end of the day, the kids still look up to us for answers.”
Fusion investigates election-fixing in Rigged, a Naked Truth documentary. To learn more, click here.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.