Gov. Rick Scott has been a kind of political chameleon of late. He certainly seems to be a kinder, gentler sort of governor. He’s running for Senate. And the race is against an entrenched and popular Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson.
This week Scott faces a test of his political mettle, and we may get a glimpse of the real candidate come Thursday.
That’s the deadline federal Judge Mark Walker gave Scott to come up with a better plan for restoring voting rights to former felons after ruling that Florida’s system is unconstitutional.
Despite Walker’s clear mandate, conventional wisdom is Scott rejects Walker’s order, and for a couple of reasons. First, he has never given in to legal mandates without losing a protracted lawsuit. He’s come up short on most all of them filed against him, but didn’t mind spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars defending what turned out to be indefensible positions.
Secondly, as slowly as the wheels of justice turn, he can simply leave the mess for his successor.
To be clear, Florida’s clemency process … simply isn’t.
The system depends on four of the state’s top elected leaders (Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis) sitting down four times a year as the state’s Board of Executive Clemency to review what has grown to 11,000 backlogged applications. Former Gov. Charlie Crist opened up some avenues for automatic voting rights redemption, but Scott snuffed those out his first year in office.
In addition to running an impossible gauntlet, felons who have served their time, including parole and restitution, must also wait five years even to apply. It’s not surprising that few ever do.
It’s estimated that Florida has 1.5 million former felons. Most political insiders point to that as the reason for Florida’s clemency-challenged system.
Florida has historically been a swing state of major importance in national elections, so imagine another 1.5 million electors’ impact on national and state politics.
Scott’s political opponents point to a dismal string of voting controversies during his time in office, including:
— Ordering Pinellas County in 2013 to stop the use of remote sites for voters to submit mail ballots (minorities).
— Overturning a request by the City of Gainesville to allow the use of the UF student union as an early voting site (millennials).
— Refusing to extend voter registration in 2016, after ordering evacuations in the face of Hurricane Matthew. Democrats sued and won a six-day extension (victims).
There is a constitutional amendment on the November ballot expected to turn the tide on voting rights. It originated from a grassroots campaign to gather the 799,000 signatures necessary for its inclusion. Pollsters point to a 67 percent chance of approval. And the courts are on its side.
But even so, Scott and the Republican-led lawmakers had one more card to play to thwart, at least for one more year, changes in the law. The Senate this year initially set aside $750,000 for clemency board business, but cut that figure back to $250,000. The House offered no money, so that’s where it ended up.
We will see what Scott does this week. Whatever he dies, change is coming.