Florida leads nation in disenfranchising former felons
If, like me, you eagerly fled Florida after the exhausting midterm elections and post-election madness, the homecoming is full of surprises.
The most welcome is a more centrist Gov. Ron DeSantis tackling environmental issues head on, with science-centered initiatives instead of political moves that reward campaign donors and polluters, as his predecessor did.
As for appointments, in his first act as governor at a poignant ceremony at the Freedom Tower in Miami, DeSantis nominated the first Cuban American and first Hispanic to Florida’s Supreme Court — a woman, appellate judge Barbara Lagoa, who grew up in Hialeah.
In a shrewd move, he suspended Broward Sheriff Scott Israel over the department’s flawed handling of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting — and replaced him with the county’s first African-American sheriff, Gregory Tony.
And most telling for its symbolism — especially from a man who ran against Florida’s first black gubernatorial candidate — DeSantis immediately righted a historical wrong by calling for a Cabinet vote and pardoning the Groveland Four, wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in 1949. It was something his predecessor, Rick Scott, shamefully declined to do during his eight-year term for no good reason at all.
Bravo, Gov. DeSantis.
But — and there is a big “but” to the pleasant surprises — on an equally important issue, one with bipartisan support, DeSantis’ will is less clear: the restoration of voting rights to Florida’s 1.4 million felons.
Florida voters spoke clearly when 64 percent voted Yes to add Amendment 4 to the state Constitution in clear ballot language that was approved by the Florida Supreme Court: “Voting rights shall be restored upon completion of terms of sentence.”
This, too, righted a wrong — the disenfranchisement, for nearly a century, of people who’ve paid their debt to society and are leading lawful lives. With their vote, Floridians clearly rejected a mandate that dated back to racist Jim Crow laws aimed at keeping blacks from voting.
DeSantis vowed to honor voters’ will when he was running for office, but now he and Republican legislative leaders are insisting that before the amendment can be implemented, the Legislature needs to pass a bill to clarify the terms and intent.
There’s nothing to clarify — and felons, seeking the opportunity for full redemption, have begun to register to vote in earnest.
Miami-Dade County’s Election Department told me Tuesday that it has received 3,107 new voter applications since Amendment 4 went into effect on Jan. 8 — and they’re being processed.
“The role of Supervisor of Elections Office remains the same,” Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White said. “As always, we rely on the voter indicating on the voter registration application that they are eligible to vote. We will continue to submit the voter’s information to the Florida State Division of Elections, who will research and verify the voter’s identity and eligibility under the new law.”
DeSantis should ensure that this process runs smoothly at the state level — not set up obstacles based on the fear that these felons would all vote Democrat.
To do so would be a big mistake that will only lead to lawsuits costly to the state. And, perhaps more significantly, his and the Legislature’s obstruction would be corrosive to the bipartisan goodwill the new Republican governor’s on-point measures have generated.
Voters recognized that it’s important for nonviolent people who have paid their debt for crimes committed and are re-entering society to take on the most sacred responsibility of citizenship: voting.
The only thing felons who’ve eagerly registered to vote should be getting from Gov. Ron DeSantis is their voter card in the mail.