Twice this winter, we have written in this column criticizing Florida’s slow and tedious road to regaining voting rights for felons who have served their time, including restitution and probation.
The bottom line is the only avenue to reclaiming aspects of citizenship — including voting, seeking public office and sitting on a jury — is to go before Florida’s Clemency Board. Members are the governor, agricultural commissioner, attorney general and chief financial officer.
Why would any clemency system depend upon four of the state’s top political leaders? And why, with a nearly 11,000 backlogged applications, would this board meet just four times yearly?
The answer is self-evident. Clemency is a favor for a select few and an impossibility for the vast majority of Florida’s ex-felons.
Add to that gauntlet a minimum wait of five years before an application can be filed, and you see how the process is built for failure. Most don’t even bother attempting to regain their civil rights. And that is wrong.
Recently two things have occurred that might change the unpalatable status quo.
First, a constitutional amendment to restore former felon rights has successfully been moved forward by a private group that gathered the necessary 799,000 petition signatures. It will be on the November ballot. It does not include returned rights for murderers or those charged with sex crimes.
Second, on Feb. 1 a district court judge ruled the Clemency Board process to be arbitrary and unconstitutional. The judge said: “Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony … To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel.”
So with the court on its side and the voters deciding whether or not to restore citizenship to former felons, it looks like a green light ahead.
Florida’s Legislature showed its colors this week by failing to fund the backlog of cases. Again, there are nearly 11,000 applications for restoration of rights by ex-felons. According to the News Service of Florida, the Senate offered $750,000, then reduced it to $250,000. The House, more accurately called the Corcoran Clan, offered no money — and that’s where it ends. The only avenue would be for Gov. Rick Scott to intercede. But he’s dead set against it and will likely leave an expensive court battle to his successor.
So it doesn’t seem to matter that courts find the process unconstitutional, or that the voters of Florida support automatic reinstatement of rights at the polls, or that it is simply the moral thing to do.
Nothing will happen, at least this year.
None of this is surprising, either. A majority of former felons are black. Not far behind are Latinos and poor white people.
All three demographics vote heavily Democratic. With 1.5 million disenfranchised felons in the state, Republicans are making certain if the votes don’t go their way, they’ll go no way at all.