Free At Last...The Right To Vote-The Orlando Times
Free At Last…..The Right To Vote
BY DEVIN HEFLIN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
In Florida, the restoration rights of ex-felons to vote is an item that will accompany this year’s election decisions. Previous “Ban the box” initiatives were struck down by Florida Governor Rick Scott, GOP legislators and District judges.
Florida’s constitution automatically strips voting rights from anyone convicted of a felony, but governors can control how those rights get restored.
Under the current system, former felons must wait a minimum until five years after completing the full scope of their sentence, including probation and restitution, before they can seek re-enfranchisement. At that point they can appeal to the clemency board, a four-member panel headed by the governor. State rules give Scott, and Scott alone, “unfettered discretion to deny clemency at any time, for any reason.”
Florida, Kentucky and Iowa are the only states where people convicted of a felony permanently lose their voting rights pending clemency hearings. In 2016, the Sentencing Project estimated that nearly 1.7 million Florida residents had been stripped of voting rights.
As the sunshine state remains home to a growing month-long prisoner strike, inmates are not only organizing on the inside, but are organizing for the day they face the outside world again.
The lawsuit was brought against Gov. Rick Scott (R) by a group of former felons in Florida who had completed their sentences but were denied voting rights by the state’s Office of Executive Clemency. They were supported by the Fair Elections Legal Network.
Almost all states deny incarcerated criminals the right to vote, but Florida, an often crucial state in presidential elections, is one of only four to not automatically restore voting rights after felons have completed their sentences.
More than 20 percent of Florida’s Black voting-age population can’t vote, according to figures from the nonpartisan Sentencing Project cited by the judge.
A measure to restore voting rights to 1.2 million Florida voters, excluding convicted murderers and sex offenders, will appear as an amendment on state ballots in November. State officials approved the measure last week after a grass-roots campaign collected 799,000 valid signatures from voters.
"Voters took matters in their own hands to ensure that their fellow Floridians, family members, and friends who've made past mistakes, served their time and paid their debts to society are given a second chance and the opportunity to earn back their ability to vote," Desmond Meade said. Meade, himself an ex-felon, serves as Chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the group instrumental in securing the ballot measure.
“People deserve another chance. It’s time this state adopts to the changing society and world.” Meade said.
This year’s amendment 4 was designed to automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences. Sentences include prison, parole, and probation.
“This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.” The ballot language will read.
The current amendment that’s part of the Florida constitution reads as:
“ (a) No person convicted of a felony, or adjudicated in this or any other state to be mentally incompetent, shall be qualified to vote or hold office until restoration of civil rights or removal of disability. Except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation”.- Article VI, Section 4. Disqualifications.—
As Floridians prepare for the 2018 mid-term elections, the decision of one Florida federal judge could turn the tide of otherwise murky election waters.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that Florida’s system for barring former felons from voting is unconstitutional and potentially tainted by racial, political or religious bias.
“In Florida, elected, partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines, or standards,” Walker wrote. “The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”
“A person convicted of a crime may have long ago exited the prison cell and completed probation,” the judge continued in the 43-page order. “Her voting rights, however, remain locked in a dark crypt. Only the state has the key — but the state has swallowed it.”
The decision comes amid a wave of victories that voting rights activists have scored in the past two years in court cases fighting restrictive state voting policies. In 2016, federal judges in North Carolina and Ohio struck down Republican-backed voter-identification laws in those states, finding that they discriminated against minority voters. A federal judge in Texas came to the same conclusion last year in a lawsuit challenging that state’s voter-identification law.
Walker’s ruling is also a forceful rebuke of Scott, who implemented Florida’s current felon restrictions shortly after he took office in 2011, reversing a more lenient policy that was in place prior.
A spokesman for the governor defended the state’s practices.
“The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons’ rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors,” read a statement from Scott’s communications director, John Tupps. “The process is outlined in Florida’s Constitution, and today’s ruling departs from the precedent set by the United States Supreme Court.”
“If any one of these citizens wishes to earn back their fundamental right to vote, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles. No more,” Walker wrote. “When the risk of state-sanctioned viewpoint discrimination skulks near the franchise, it is the province and duty of this Court to excise such potential bias from infecting the clemency process.”
Voter restoration was a faster and less demanding process for former felons under Scott’s predecessor, Rep. Charlie Crist, a former Republican who is now a Democrat in the House of Representatives. During Crist’s four years in office roughly 154,000 people had their voting rights restored. In the seven years since Scott took office, fewer than 3,000 people have been granted restoration, according to Walker’s ruling.
“We’ve known this policy was unjust, and today a federal judge confirmed it’s also a violation of constitutional rights,” Crist tweeted Thursday.
“If their debt to society has been paid, these eligible voters cannot continue to be disenfranchised, and told that they must spend the rest of their lives paying debts. Let them vote.” Said Senator Randolph Bracy Jr. who represents Florida’s District 11 as a state senator.