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Swing state Florida has toughest ex-felon voting rules in the nation

In this election cycle, one in ten Florida adults — and nearly one in four African Americans — will be unable to vote because of a prior felony conviction.

Vikki Hankins, released from federal prison in 2008, cannot vote under Florida law. Hankins wrote a book about her experience in prison and launched Fine Success Magazine following her release. Video by Alexandra Nikolchev.

In 1990, two years after her mother’s suicide, 21-year-old Vikki Hankins was arrested on drug charges in Orlando.

At the time, federal law required that individuals arrested with cocaine base, known commonly as crack cocaine, be penalized more severely than those found with powder by a ratio of 100:1. Under these terms, distribution of just five grams of crack cocaine carried a minimum sentence of five years.

Hankins was found with less than 50 grams, an amount she likens to “almost the size of a chocolate chip cookie.” She was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute as well as possession of a controlled substance, and was sentenced to 23 years and four months in federal prison. She served over 18 years, and was released in March, 2008, at the age of 39.

Toward the end of her incarceration, Hankins followed the 2008 presidential election with rapt attention. She recalls “being glued” to CNN in the prison’s television rooms to keep up with the race.

“As soon as I got out, I applied for my civil rights,” she said. “Voting was important to me.”

But Hankins found that in her home state of Florida, getting one’s rights reinstated as an ex-felon would prove difficult — if not impossible. After her release, she made several unsuccessful appeals. As she waited for her third application to make its way through the system in 2011, the state’s clemency policy was reversed.

Newly elected Governor Rick Scott had issued an executive order on ex-felon voting rights, creating new rules that are widely seen as some of the most restrictive in the nation.

Under his directive, residents convicted of a felony must wait five to seven years after their release before they can begin the process of reinstating their civil rights, which can only be restored through executive clemency: approval from the Governor himself.

“Felons seeking restoration of rights will […] be required to demonstrate that they desire and deserve clemency by applying only after they have shown they are willing to abide by the law,” Gov. Scott said when announcing the changes. “The Restoration of Civil Rights can be a significant part of the rehabilitation of criminal offenders and can assist them in reentry into society. It is important that this form of clemency be granted in a deliberate, thoughtful manner that prioritizes public safety and creates incentives to avoid criminal activity.”

Hankins was on her way to Jacksonville, still anxiously awaiting her application’s approval, when she heard about the new restrictions on the radio.

“I was floored,” she said. “What that says to me is ‘no matter what you’ve done, Vikki, we don’t care about the example that you set. We do not care that you spent 20 years in prison. We do not care that you paid your debt to society. You are not a part of us.’”

According to the Brennan Center for Criminal Justice, the 87,000 persons who were part of the “backlog” of cases awaiting approval before 2011, including Hankins, cannot apply for their rights’ restoration until they fulfill the new requirements.

Even then, their applications may still be denied.

What’s your reaction? Is Florida’s newly stringent policy merited? Or, should ex-felons be allowed to vote without so many restrictions? Sound off in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook.