Gov. Rick Scott always has been grudging and imperious about restoring the voting rights of felons, requiring them to wait for years before begging the governor and Cabinet to be recognized again as citizens. That arrogance is on full display in a legal brief filed this week after a judge slapped down Florida’s anachronistic system as unconstitutional. It is all the evidence Floridians need to conclude that partisan politicians cannot be trusted with unilaterally deciding who gets back the sacred right to vote.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a landmark order earlier this month in the long-simmering feud over restoration of felons’ rights in Florida. Under the current system, all felons must wait at least five years after completing their sentences, serving probation and paying restitution before they can apply for the right to vote and other civil rights such as serving on a jury. Scott and the three-member Cabinet, sitting as the clemency board, consider petitions just four times a year, usually fewer than 100 each time. That has created yearslong delays even after the mandatory waiting period and a backlog of thousands of cases. The "scheme," as Walker called it, is impractical and dysfunctional. Worse, it hinges on Scott’s whims.
The governor and Cabinet vote on each case, but the governor has to be in the majority. Walker noted that Scott once remarked at a hearing, "We can do whatever we want." Another time, he couldn’t make up his mind in the case of a petitioner who had been convicted of manslaughter and DUI, noting, "That’s how my uncle died." That kind of capriciousness has deprived countless Floridians who have paid their debt the opportunity to fully reintegrate. Walker recognized that and ordered the state and Fair Elections Legal Network, the voting rights group that filed the suit, to submit briefs on how to fix Florida’s system.
Yet the state did not make a concrete proposal. Its perverse response asserts that it would be "inappropriate" for the court to order the governor and Cabinet to create a new system — harkening, it seems, to Scott’s "we can do whatever we want" proclamation. Among the state’s options, according to the brief: uniformly refusing to restore any felon’s right to vote. That’s an astoundingly tone-deaf argument that lays bare Scott’s contempt for giving felons a viable path to become contributing members of society. Scott already has signaled that an appeal of the judge’s order is likely, which would further add insult to the people who have stood in line to have their cases heard.
A larger movement may ultimately overtake the legal maneuvering by the governor and Cabinet. Amendment 4 on the November ballot would change the state Constitution to require that the voting rights for all felons except those convicted of murder and sex crimes be automatically restored when their sentences are complete. The Legislature also could put its own amendment on the ballot, but it presumably would be more restrictive. Like Scott, Republican legislative leaders have argued that felons should endure a waiting period to prove they are successfully reintegrating into society and staying out of trouble. But that’s a backward argument: Voting and serving on a jury are fundamental to citizenship and part of the means by which people reintegrate.
The governor and Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — are right that, as the federal judge pointed out, felons can be legally banned from voting for up to a lifetime. But that draconian approach is out of touch in a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, and they cannot be trusted to devise a fair system for restoring voting rights after they defended such an unfair one for years. Thankfully, that responsibility will soon be in the hands of the courts and the voters.