Well, that didn’t take long.
Instead of correcting a wrong of their own making, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi decided to double-down to support a clemency process that a federal judge recently determined was both “arbitrary” and “unconstitutional.”
In February, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ordered the state to develop a new method of deciding when and how convicted felons can regain their voting rights by April 26. Scott and the other Republicans in the Florida Cabinet wasted little time snubbing the ruling and opting to file an appeal, a process that wastes taxpayers’ money and deprives 1.5 million Floridians of their basic civil right to vote.
The decision shouldn’t surprise anyone, given state leaders’ track record of making it even more difficult for felons to regain voting and other civil rights. Seven years ago, the governor and the newly elected Cabinet dismantled what had been the makings of a legitimate clemency process and replaced it with an administrative beg-a-thon.
In 2011, Scott, Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and then-Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater changed the procedures by eliminating the automatic restoration of voting rights and replaced it with a minimum five-year waiting period before individuals could start the application process.
Florida is now one of only three states that imposes lifetime disenfranchisement for people with felony convictions. The only way convicted felons can regain voting rights in Florida is to apply to the state Office of Executive Clemency and pray that their application is granted — a rare outcome, according to state figures.
Under Scott, only 2,488 applications for restoration of civil rights have been granted, a drastic drop from his two Republican predecessors. Gov. Jeb Bush restored the rights of 73,508 from 1999-2007. Gov. Charlie Crist, who instituted the automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felons, restored 155,315 between 2007 and 2011.
Contrast Florida’s restrictive process to those of other states, where tough-on-crime policies give way to common-sense criminal justice.
Convicted felons in Indiana, Illinois, Montana and Utah regain their voting rights automatically once they are released from prison. In New York, Colorado and California, voting rights are automatically restored after release from prison and discharge from parole. There is no need to restore voting rights to ex-prisoners in Vermont and Maine as those states have no disenfranchisement for people with criminal convictions.
As a tool of voter suppression, felony disenfranchisement has no equal. More than 6 million Americans are unable to vote because of criminal convictions, and many of them have successfully made the transition from prison to being productive members of society.
Fortunately, Florida’s voters will have a say this November. They can approve the felony voting rights amendment that will protect a felon’s rights from the fickleness and political whims of the Florida Cabinet.
It should not have had to come to that, however. Florida’s elected leaders should have complied with the federal court and developed a credible voting-rights restoration process for those felons searching for a second chance.
Perry E. Thurston Jr. represents District 33 in the Florida Senate.