In ruling against Florida’s racist and regressive system of restoring — or, more accurately, failing to restore — ex-felons’ voting rights, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker called it “fatally flawed.” The ruling is only 150 years in the making. It is overdue, but welcome anyway.
Tuesday, Walker ordered Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members — who, as the state’s clemency board, rule on ex-felons’ petitions to restore voting rights — to ditch the current system and come back with a new one that makes sense, one that has clear standards and criteria. And he wants to see it by April 26.
Florida’s clemency process is a Jim Crow-era anachronism that has no place in the 21st century. One by one, Southern states have dismantled their myriad devious ways to deny freed slaves the full franchise of citizenship. Denying ex-felons a vote went hand-in-hand with the creation of a raft of new felonies.
It was a power grab by whites, new iterations of which we continue to see 150 years later, unfortunately. Failing to open early-voting sites in minority communities and eliminating Souls to the Polls Sundays, when African Americans in Florida vote in droves, are simply new twists on the same old efforts to disenfranchise black citizens.
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Commend Walker for affirming the unconstitutionality of an arbitrary system that gave governors and Cabinets the authority to tell ex-felons Yes or No based on, what?
About 1.5 million Floridians have been permanently disenfranchised because of felony convictions, even when they have successfully completed prison sentences. The Florida Commission on Offender Review, which investigates felons who petition for the restoration of civil rights, has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.
We wish that the judge had gone further and ordered the creation of an independent panel to revise the system. Walker told Gov. Scott, who is considering a Senate run, and the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is term-limited; Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, whom Scott appointed in 2017 to replace Jeff Atwater and who is seeking a four-year term; and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is running for governor — to fix a system that has been politically beneficial to Republicans, a system that they themselves crafted. (Patronis was not part of the original Cabinet making the voting-restoration process more onerous than it was when Charlie Crist was governor.)
Given that three of the four Republicans are seeking office and that the clemency system blocks a disproportionate number of Democratic-leaning African Americans from casting a ballot, these politicians — any politician — has a inherent conflict. Remaking the state’s clemency system really is a job for an impartial panel of legal experts, advocates for ex-felons and former prisoners themselves. Politicians should have no role whatsoever in deciding who gets to vote.
But Floridians themselves can step up and remedy this sorry situation in November when they’ll find Amendment 4 on the ballot. This amendment would install in the state Constitution that if a felon has satisfied all of the terms and conditions of a judge’s order — including the sentenced imposed, victim restitution, parole and probation, payment of court costs — then his or her rights will be restored. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of sexual offenses or murder.
We believe in second chances. And Amendment 4 is the proper way to provide them.