Locking Up the Vote

Article excerpt

Disenfranchisement of former prisoners was the real crime in Florida

ROSETTA MEEKS LIVES IN FLORIDA'S Miami-Dade County, but she didn't get to vote in the presidential election. Nobody scrutinized her ballot for chads or screamed himself hoarse trying to prevent officials from counting it. An African-American woman who has devoted her last six years to teaching computer skills to low-income people, Meeks wanted to vote and knew whom she wanted to vote for. But she was locked out of the mayhem.

Rosetta Meeks was convicted of a drug felony seven and a half years ago and, under Florida law, every felon is permanently barred from the voting booth unless the governor and at least three of his cabinet members decide to restore her civil rights. Thirteen other states have similar laws: If you commit any felony--be it murder or lying on a customs form--you never again get to have a say in the election of the president or the town selectman. According to the best available estimates, this law kept 525,000 people in Florida, most of them poor and a great many of them black, away from the polls in a presidential election decided by just a few hundred votes.

Like most ex-felons, Meeks didn't meet all 23 of the qualifications for Florida's process of fast-track enfranchisement. The qualifications range from the type of crime you committed (you can't, for example, have been found guilty of battery of a public transit official) to your financial status (you can't owe the state more than $1,000, not uncommon for poor ex-felons who are often subjected to large fines and restitution payments, or required by judges to pay the fees of their state- appointed attorneys.)

So, to start her application for clemency, Meeks had to fill out a convoluted 16-page form with questions ranging from the invasive, like the date of birth of any person with whom she had a child out of wedlock, to the irrelevant, like the cause of death of her parents, to the potentially invidious, like the name and purpose of any organization she belongs to. Then on page 14 it asks "Have you ever been a defendant in civil litigation? Y/N--. If Yes, please describe in details." Directly below, it repeats the exact same question without the "please."

The state clemency board uses the form to conduct an investigation into the applicant's past. It then makes a recommendation on whether clemency should be granted and forwards the investigative report, which the applicant is never allowed to see, to Governor Jeb Bush. The governor, according to Florida law, has "unfettered discretion to deny clemency at any time for any reason."

According to Meeks, "They wanted to know my mother and father's names. They wanted to know what my parents died of. Does that really matter?" Apparently it does because the Florida Parole Commission recommended against her. "I made a mistake. I'm sorry. I abused the system by using drugs. When you are young, you do things that you shouldn't do. Do I have to pay for this for the rest of my life?" Meeks asks before adding: "I'm very proud of myself now. If I don't get the right to vote this time, I'm going to continue to try."

Meeks was persistent, and her story has a happy ending. She paid off her fines, and a local civil-rights organization lent her a car so she was able to drive nine hours north to appeal directly to the governor. Finally, the day after Al Gore conceded the election and more than two and a half years after she began her quest, Jeb Bush waved his hand and magically returned Meeks her right to vote.

But most other ex-felons are shut out. The Sunshine State restored civil rights to only 1,832 ex-felons last year, about 1 out of every 300 in the state. Florida officials say that they do not have this data broken down by race or class, but, pre-election at least, it didn't seem to hurt to be a white Republican. Chuck Colson, who had proposed that the Nixon administration firebomb the Brookings Institution and went to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, was pardoned by Bush and, unlike Meeks, allowed to vote in November. …