CRC Weighs Felon Voting Rights Proposal

Mar 8, 2018

Credit MGN Online

A proposal that could’ve changed the way felons’ rights are restored was withdrawn the Constitution Revision Commission Thursday, leaving a broken system intact for now. But it’s not the final say on the issue.

Uncertainty is mounting surrounding the way felons’ rights are restored. 

A federal judge last month ruled that Florida’s current system is unconstitutional.

Under the present situation, people convicted of a felony are permanently stripped of a number of civil rights including voting, serving on a jury and owning a gun.

Felons are allowed to appeal this to what’s called the Executive Clemency Board, comprised of the Governor, Attorney General, Agricultural Commissioner and Chief Financial Officer. But this board is part of what the judge deemed unconstitutional.

"In the rules it says that the governor and the cabinet have unfettered discretion to grant or deny applications for restoration of voting rights.," says senior council at the Fair Elections Legal Network John Sherman. "We also learned from watching the process that this is an arbitrary decision-making process.”

He says appeals can be denied for any number of reasons.

"We’ve seen people be denied for speeding tickets, simply a gut judgment as to whether enough time has passed, for failing a drug test when they were a juvenile prior to even having their probation revoked and then serving a one year sentence,” notes Sherman.

Under former governor Charlie Christ, Florida had automatic rights restoration for felons who committed nonviolent crimes.

But Governor Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam reversed that upon taking office.

Chris Smith, a former Senate Democrat and member of the Constitution Revision Commission, argues something must be done to address this flawed system.

“Governor Scott has sat like a King with the thumbs up and thumbs down," argues Smith. "You’re having people travel from Miami-Dade, driving all the way up here to go through an entire process just to have Governor Scott, arbitrarily, say no.”

Thursday’s meeting was originally intended to discuss other options to amend the rights restoration process. But commissioners ultimately withdrew their proposal fearing multiple ballot measures could confuse voters or split the vote causing no proposition to reach the required 60 percent approval.

Proposals the CRC would have considered include creating a seven-member board to hear appeals and having felons petition the governor directly to have rights restored. In both cases, lawmakers would be in charge of passing legislation that defines what terms are necessary to have a felon’s rights restored.

As it stands now, Florida voters will be able to decide whether to automatically restore voting rights to felons. A citizen-led initiative, Amendment 4, if approved in November would immediately restore voting rights to over 1 million Floridians.