Florida’s antiquated system of restoring voting rights to felons is battered but not broken — which means that most felons probably won’t be able to cast ballots in this fall’s elections.
A federal appeals court stepped in at the last minute Wednesday and approved Gov. Rick Scott’s request to block a lower court’s order to replace the system, a day before Scott and the three elected Cabinet members faced a deadline to enact new rules for restoring felons’ rights.
The action by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta was a victory for Scott and it means the fight for felons’ rights now moves to the court of public opinion and politics.
The first sign of that came Thursday as more than 300 people marched to the Capitol in support of a statewide citizens’ initiative to restore the right to vote to convicted felons in Florida and to destroy a 150-year-old system that permanently disenfranchises them.
The midday march was organized by pastors and preachers in an effort to build support for Amendment 4, which will appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Similar efforts are underway across the state.
If approved by 60 percent of voters, Amendment 4 will restore the right to vote to an estimated 1.5 million people in Florida — excluding felons who were convicted of murder or felony sex crimes.
“If this state can ban people from voting but can’t ban weapons on our streets, that’s sick,” said the Rev. R.B. Holmes, an organizer of the protest. “Enough is enough. If you have served your time in prison, you ought to be able to exercise your civil rights.”
Scott, a Republican and a candidate for the U.S. Senate, disagrees.
He and the three elected Cabinet members, all Republicans, have argued in court that Florida has the right to require that ex-felons obey the law for at least five years after finishing their sentences before they can apply to have their rights restored.
On Thursday, protesters marched from a church near the Governor’s Mansion to the Capitol, where the crowd grew larger on the steps of the historic Old Capitol where many Florida governors have taken the oath of office.
Marchers waved signs that said, “Vote Yes on 4,” and chanted, “One man, one vote,” and, “This is what democracy looks like.”
The fight for voting rights carries special resonance for African-Americans because of the South’s history of disenfranchising black voters and the long and often violent efforts to win passage of voting rights and civil rights laws in the 1960s.
Tawanna Franklin, a third-year law school student at Florida State, was one of the speakers at the march.
“Never in my lifetime did I ever imagine that I would have to fight for the right to vote,” Franklin said. “My parents and grandparents fought for the same rights so long ago — We now have the opportunity to be the change.”
Participants included the Rev. Al Sharpton; Andrew Gillum, a candidate for governor and mayor of Tallahassee; Larry Robinson, president of Florida A&M University; and Ben Crump, a Tallahassee civil rights lawyer.
Supporters of Amendment 4 expressed anger and frustration at the Atlanta court’s last-minute decision to block a March 27 injunction approved by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who struck down the 150-year-old vote restoration system for felons as unconstitutional.
“I hope there’s a backlash, that people are angry about these continuing delays of their right to vote,” state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, told the Herald/Times Thursday.
Scott and the Cabinet appealed Walker’s order even though the four elected officials, who are all bound by Florida’s Sunshine law, never held a public meeting or discussion before taking legal action.
Scott’s office said the action was permissible under a 1978 decision by the Florida Supreme Court.
Walker said Florida’s system was unconstitutional because of its arbitrariness and the fact that clemency rules require the governor to personally approve every case of clemency, but the appeals court said the state can have such a system.
With a stay in effect, Florida’s clemency system will continue as it has been largely since the 1800s except for a four-year period when Charlie Crist was governor from 2007 to 2011.
Thousands of felons regained their voting rights without hearings during Crist’s term, but Scott and a new Cabinet imposed a minimum five-year waiting period to apply for voting rights in 2011.
Legal experts said that the state’s appeal of Walker’s injunction order will last through the November general election, meaning that felons will not be able to register to vote and cast ballots in 2018.
“The ruling from the 11th Circuit preserves the status quo,” said the Fair Elections Legal Network, a Washington advocacy group that challenged the Florida system. “The case will be briefed and argued on the merits.”
The state has a May 25 deadline to file briefs with the Atlanta court, and Fair Elections’ brief is due 30 days later. Oral arguments are expected to be held in late August.
The deadline to register to vote for Florida’s general election is Oct. 9.