Fabiola Santiago

Voters should end Florida’s partisan, racist policy of denying voting rights to felons

For the last eight years, Gov. Rick Scott has sat in judgment of Florida’s 1.5 million felons — long after they’ve completed their sentences, including parole and probation — and kept them from voting.

“If you are a convicted felon, part of what you did is you lost your rights,” Scott has said to explain the long, drawn out process by which his “clemency board,” made up of his Cabinet, consider restoring a felons’ voting rights.

“This is a board of mercy,” he tells the people before him. “We make decisions based on our own beliefs.”

That’s a lot of power for a bunch of hyper-partisan people. No wonder they have presided over what the Brennan Center for Justice calls “one of the most punitive disenfranchisement policies in the country.”

A recent Palm Beach Post investigation uncovered just how unfair, partisan and arbitrary the current system of restoring rights can be: Scott’s brand of justice has kept Democrats and African-American felons from getting their rights restored at much higher rates than Republicans and whites. Blacks accounted for 27 percent of those who had their voting rights restored but 43 percent of those released from prisons.

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In fact, Scott has granted voting rights to the lowest percentage of blacks in 50 years, the Post found.

It’s stunning to watch a video that shows the indignities endured by people who have served their time and have filed an application to be allowed to vote again and waited for years for this hearing. They’re asked demeaning questions that have no relevance whatsoever, like by how many partners they have conceived their children.

But Florida voters can change this miscarriage of justice on Nov. 6 with a Yes vote on Amendment 4 to automatically restore the rights of people who have fully paid their debt to society, including the supervisory period following a sentence served.

Note: People convicted of murders and sex crimes are excluded from this, as they should be.

When you hear rehabbed felons who have made something good of their lives post-prison talk about why they want their rights restored, they will tell you things like: “to be made whole,” and “to be a full citizen again.” They deserve this integral second chance instead of disbarment for partisan or racist reasons.

An estimated 6.1 million Americans nationwide aren’t allowed to vote. Although rates of disenfranchisement vary from state to state due to differing prohibitions, only three states in the nation — Florida, Iowa and Kentucky — outright disenfranchise voters convicted of a felony after they’ve done their time. That’s 1.5 million people in Florida — 10 percent of the adult population in the state and disproportionally poor or working poor and black.

It’s a disgrace.

For one, the man who sits in judgment of whether they should be allowed to vote or not might have been a convicted felon himself were it not for good lawyers.

As CEO of Columbia/HCA in the 1990s, a company he founded, Scott presided over what was then the largest healthcare fraud case in the nation’s history, resulting in a $1.7 billion fine to the company.

Scott’s only punishment was to step down from the job — and leave a millionaire.

His money helped Scott twice get elected governor. His not-so-blind trust — invested in companies that did business with Florida — has only grown his riches and is funding now his campaign for the Senate against incumbent Bill Nelson.

Scott invoked countless times the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and said he didn’t know anything about the fraud. He cleverly avoided prison time for flagrant white-collar crime — and has routinely ruled to deny others the right to re-join the voter rolls as the eligible American citizens that they are.

As they say, only in Florida.

“Florida’s democracy is broken, and no one — least of all Latino voters — should be okay with a system that relegates so many to second-class status, denying them one of the hallmarks of U.S. citizenship,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, counsel in the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University School of Law.

It would take a yes vote by 60 percent of the voters in these midterm elections to change the status quo — not an easy task, despite the testimony of many felons from all walks of life who are serving their communities, some in leadership roles.

If you believe that justice trumps politics, you should vote for Florida to join the rest of the nation in restoring the voting rights of felons who’ve completed their sentences. After successfully completing parole or probation, they shouldn’t have to sit at another trial by politicians to rebuild their lives.

“Punishment must include a constructive and redemptive purpose,” the Florida Conference of Bishops said in a statement endorsing Amendment 4. “As nearly all inmates will return to society, their integration must be encouraged.”

Indeed.

If you think that a crime committed and atoned for shouldn’t determine who you are for the rest of your life, you need to give Amendment 4 a yes vote.

Follow Fabiola Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago

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