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Voters Will Decide Whether 1.5 Million Ex-Offenders Gain Back Their Right to Vote

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi have appealed a judge’s order to fix the voter restoration system for former felons that a judge ruled unconstitutional.

Kimberley  Richards

Kimberley Richards

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the startling number of 1.5 million disenfranchised Floridians, state government officials have been pushing back against efforts to amend Florida’s notoriously difficult voter restoration system for ex-offenders. Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla) and Republican Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi have recently appealed a judge’s order calling on the state to create a new voter restoration process to replace the current “arbitrary” system by April 26. As elected officials go head-to-head on the constitutionality of the state’s draconian voter laws, voters will have the power to restore voting rights for Floridians who have paid their debts to society in the upcoming midterm elections – and it’s all thanks to grassroots efforts.

Florida is one of the few states in the nation that permanently strips the right to vote from people who have been convicted of a felony. As a result, an estimated 1.5 million Floridians are disenfranchised due to prior felonies, and an astounding 10 percent of the adult population in the state is voteless due to felony convictions period.

After Scott took office in 2011, he reversed efforts made by his predecessor, former Gov. Charlie Crist, to restore voting rights to ex-offenders with nonviolent felony convictions. Scott and other Cabinet-level officials implemented a rule that offenders – including nonviolent offenders – had to wait at least five years after completing their sentences before petitioning the state for the restoration of their civil rights. But the clemency process following the initial wait period has proven to contain even more roadblocks in practice.

Florida is one of the few states in the nation that permanently strips the right to vote from people who have been convicted of a felony.

Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN), a national nonpartisan voting rights group, sued Scott, Bondi, and other state officials last year in a class action lawsuit on behalf of nine plaintiffs who are disenfranchised, and who have applied to have their voting rights restored and were denied. U.S District Judge Mark Walker, a President Barack Obama appointee, ruled in support of the lawsuit this past February, finding the state’s voting ban and restoration process for ex-offenders to be unconstitutional. On March 27 he issued a permanent injunction that the governor and Cabinet create a new voter restoration system.

“Florida’s vote-restoration scheme providing government officials’ with unfettered discretion and no meaningful time restraints on the exercise of that discretion violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” Walker’s summary judgement read in part.


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Once Florida residents complete their sentences, probation, and restitution – and the five to seven wait period has passed – a backlog of 10,000 clemency hearing requests could mean an additional wait period, which has been reported to last at least nine years in many cases. But even those Floridians who stick out the wait periods to meet before Scott, Bondi and two other members of the executive clemency board, have a significant chance of getting denied due to a multitude of reasons. According to The New York Times, Scott only grants 8 percent of the few hundred requests that make it to the quarterly clemency hearings. Walker wrote in his ruling that the clemency hearing gives “partisan officials” an “extraordinary authority” without guidelines or standards.

“Florida’s vote-restoration scheme providing government officials’ with unfettered discretion and no meaningful time restraints on the exercise of that discretion violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments."

Jon Sherman, senior counsel at FELN, told VICE Impact that past transcriptions and videos of Florida’s clemency hearings reveal that residents have been habitually denied their right to vote for arbitrary reasons, including having speeding tickets on their record, the lawsuit claims.

Sherman pointed to one example during a hearing in which Scott reportedly told Virginia Kay Atkins, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, that he denied her restoration because he didn’t feel “comfortable” restoring her civil rights, 10 years after her release from incarceration.

Earlier this month, Bondi’s office filed a notice of appeal at the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and also asked for a stay on the order to create a new process by the April 26 deadline. Walker quickly rejected the request to put the order on hold.

In an e-mail sent to VICE Impact, Scott’s office relayed the following statement made by John Tupps, the governor’s communication director, on April 16:

“...Judge Walker recklessly ordered elected officials to change decades of practice in a matter of weeks” the statement read in part. “This does not give the victims of crimes the voice they deserve. The Governor will always stand with victims of crimes, not criminals. Let’s remember, these criminals include those convicted of crimes like murder, violence against children and domestic violence.”

But as Sherman noted to VICE Impact, significant populations of ex-offenders with nonviolent felonies are the ones being gravely impacted by the state’s strict voting ban. In Florida, a driver can be convicted with a felony on their third conviction for driving with a suspended license. This would qualify a Florida resident to permanently lose their right to vote.

Grassroots efforts in Florida, particularly led by Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) and chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, have now enabled voters to hold the power in restoring voting rights for a significant percentage of the state’s population. Floridians for a Fair Democracy have successfully gathered more than the minimum amount of signatures needed to have a voter restoration initiative on the ballot this November.

The ballot initiative will ask Floridians to cast a “yes” or “no” vote on whether to allow “people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense” to have their right to vote automatically restored after completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.

Florida’s Jim Crow-era law permanently banning ex-offenders from voting disproportionately affects black people, who are more likely to be targeted by cops, and receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as their white counterparts. The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly a quarter of the black population in Florida is disenfranchised.

The ballot initiative will ask Floridians to cast a “yes” or “no” vote on whether to allow “people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense” to have their right to vote automatically restored after completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.

With such a significant percentage of the Florida population disenfranchised, it’s especially important for eligible voters to make their voices heard in the upcoming midterm elections.

“It’s the most important voting rights ballot initiative possibly in the history of the country,” Sherman told VICE Impact. “You’re talking about the largest enfranchisement of voters since the Voting Rights Act was passed.”

Efforts to put Florida's constitutional amendment on the ballot is a community effort. You can help restore voting rights in Florida.