Kathy Castor, ACLU & NAACP call for Gov. Scott & Cabinet to automatically grant ex-felons right to vote



The NAACPs Dr. Carolyn Collins, Kathy Castor & the ACLUs Mike Pheneger
  • The NAACP's Dr. Carolyn Collins, Kathy Castor & the ACLU's Mike Pheneger
Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder called for a repeal of laws that prohibit millions of ex-felons from voting, calling it a vestige of the racist policies in the South after the civil war, when states used the criminal justice system to keep blacks from fully engaging in society.

Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Florida, one of just four states in the nation that bar ex-convicts from voting unless they receive clemency from the governor or Cabinet. Only 348 were granted such clemency from the governor and state Cabinet in Florida last year, while hundreds of thousands are on the waiting list for their cases to be reviewed.

Standing in front of the Historic Central Avenue mural in downtown Tampa, Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor and representatives from the ACLU and NAACP called for an end to the current state policy in Florida that has disenfranchised over 1.5 million Floridians, including 20 percent of the state's African-American population.

"At the rate Governor Scott and the Cabinet are going, we won’t be alive by the time the current ex-felons have done this," Mike Pheneger from the ACLU said sarcastically.

Governor Scott and the rest of the Cabinet are scheduled to consider restoring the right to vote of nonviolent offenders who have paid fines and completed probation at their meeting next month.

In April of 2007, then just-elected Governor Charlie Crist convinced the Cabinet (including then CFO Alex Sink) to streamline the process, allowing ex-felons convicted of less serious offenses to regain their voting rights without a hearing, while those convicted of crimes such as murder required a more thorough investigation and a hearing. It was not technically an "automatic" process, because the Parole Commission had to approve it. But though that was considered a better restoration process than under Jeb Bush, advocates like the ACLU said it didn't go far enough. The Tampa Bay Times reported that there were more than 150,000 restorations under Crist; another 100,000 remained when he left office.

But that was an enormous number compared to the less than 1,000 ex-cons who have been granted restoration of their rights under the Scott regime, which reversed the Crist policy shortly after the governor and Attorney General Pam Bondi took office in early 2011.

Because of that act, CL asked Congresswoman Castor if it was simply a political ploy to challenge the Cabinet to change course this year. The Hillsborough-based Representative grew slightly indignant, saying in 2014, it is simply untenable to continue such a policy.

The ACLU's Pheneger said if anything was political, it was Scott & Bondi's decision to reverse Crist's move. "The whole idea that you can disenfranchise a bunch of people who may not end up voting for you is a political act!" he said. Congresswoman Castor agreed, calling the move to reverse the Crist edict "fairly transparent that it was political manipulation."

A report issued in 2012 by the Sentencing Project found that one in ten Florida adults—nearly one in four blacks—couldn't vote in Florida because of a felony conviction. That same report found that 1.5 million felons were disenfranchised in Florida in 2010, including 1.3 million who were longer behind bars.

After Attorney General Holder's speech last week, a spokesman for Governor Scott told the New York Times, "For those who are truly remorseful for how they have wrecked families, and want to earn back their right to vote, Florida’s Constitution also provides a process to have their rights restored," without elaborating on how long and arduous that path is.

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