TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Changes under Republican Gov. Rick Scott are making it more difficult for Florida's former felons to get their voting rights restored, which critics say has suppressed the minority vote and hurt Democratic candidates.
As one of his first actions after taking office in 2011, Scott, as chairman of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, undid automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent ex-offenders that previous Gov. Charlie Crist helped adopt in 2007. Since then, the number of former felons who have had their voting rights restored has slowed to a trickle, even compared with the year before Crist and the clemency board helped make the process easier.
Civil liberties activists say Florida's rights restoration rules are the most restrictive in the nation and have the effect, if not the intent, of suppressing the minority vote. A disproportionate number of black Floridians are convicted felons - 16.5 percent of Floridians are black, yet black inmates make up 31.5 percent of the state's prison population - meaning a higher percentage of African-Americans don't have the right to vote after completing their sentences.
And black voters tend to support Democrats. Exit polls show only one in 10 supported Scott in the 2010 election.
Desmond Meade is among the former felons who cannot vote in Florida because their civil rights haven't been restored although they've completed their sentences, often many years ago.
"It weakens the political voice in the African-American community," said Meade, who is black. "Therefore, the plight of African-Americans becomes basically a political non-factor."
That's exactly how it was planned, say some critics who believe the Republican effort to make voting rights restoration more difficult is politically motivated.
"This is one of the few government programs that has worked precisely as it was designed, namely to try to suppress the vote of as many African-Americans as possible," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "It was designed that way in 1868, and it continues to have that effect in 2013."
In 2011, 78 ex-felons had their right to vote restored. That number rose to 342 last year. That compares with more than 14,000 in 2006, Gov. Jeb Bush's last year in office, and more than 85,000 in 2008, the first full year after the clemency board followed Crist's lead and voted to allow virtually automatic rights restoration for nonviolent former felons.
In the midst of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, Florida adopted a new constitution with a provision prohibiting former felons from voting or holding public office unless their civil rights were restored.
In most states, some or all felons now get back their right to vote, although not necessarily other rights such as gun ownership, upon finishing their sentences. Some states, though, have waiting periods as well as application and approval requirements. Some deny rights restoration for more serious crimes. In Maryland and Vermont, convicts never lose their voting rights and can cast absentee ballots from prison.
Florida is the largest of four states that permanently deny felons the right to vote unless restored by the governor or a clemency board. The others are Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa.
There's disagreement about exactly how many former felons are affected, but Florida leads the nation in all counts.
The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice advocacy group, says that nationally, 5.85 million ex-felons have been disenfranchised by various state rights restoration laws. The group puts Florida at 1.54 million, including 520,000 African Americans. That's about one out of every five voting-age blacks.
Other advocates say Florida's overall number of disenfranchised former felons is somewhat smaller - estimates range from 600,000 to 1 million - but still significant in a state that decided the 2000 presidential election by 537 votes.
In Florida, ex-felons must obtain approval from the governor and at least two of the state's three elected Cabinet members to have their civil rights restored, allowing them to vote, serve on juries and hold public office. Together the four officials comprise the Florida Board of Executive Clemency.
Crist, at the time a Republican, earned praise from Democrats for making the restoration of voting rights easier. Crist is now a Democrat and is considering another run for governor.
As a result of the Crist rules, civil rights were restored to more than 150,000 former felons during the nearly four years they were in effect, according to state records.
That changed dramatically after Scott and three new Cabinet members, all Republicans, were elected in 2010. One of the first things the new board did was rescind Crist's rules and impose waiting periods of five to seven years after release, depending on the severity of the crime, before ex-felons can apply for rights restoration. A backlog of cases due to the new rules and staff-depleting budget cuts can add several more years to the wait.
Attorney General Pam Bondi proposed the present rules. She declined to be interviewed but issued a written statement.
"Committing a felony is a serious breach of the bonds that join us together as a society. As a former prosecutor, I believe felons must demonstrate they are willing to live crime-free for a reasonable period of time before asking to have their rights restored."
While Florida has been getting tougher on rights restoration, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in December announced he was making it easier for ex-felons to get their civil rights back. The Republican said applicants no longer would have to pay off all court costs, restitution and fines before applying, nor would they have to submit credit reports. Branstad, though, stood by his 2005 decision to reverse former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack's policy of automatically restoring felons' rights upon leaving state supervision.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, also a Republican, supported a constitutional change that would have allowed automatic rights restoration for nonviolent felons, but the proposal died in the General Assembly in February.
Perennial legislation to restore some felons' voting rights again has been filed in Kentucky, but it's considered a longshot.
No such legislation has been filed in Florida. House Democratic Leader Perry Thurman of Plantation said that nothing short of electing a new governor will change Florida's policy unless Scott has a "change of heart."
Thurman said he didn't expect that to happen, and Scott confirmed that in in a recent interview, saying the board "made the right decision."
"It's your obligation to show you have become the type of citizen you say you have become," Scott said.
Those kinds of statements are "ideological cover for voter suppression," said the ACLU's Simon.
Meade, a 45-year-old law student at Florida International University in Miami and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, submitted an application for rights restoration last year, but it was rejected because of the seven-year waiting period.
Initially convicted of cocaine possession in the 1990s, Meade was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and sentenced to three years in prison as part of a plea agreement.
The Florida Legislature, with Bondi's support, in 2011 passed a law decoupling rights restoration from various state and local licensing and permitting requirements to help former felons qualify for jobs even if they can't vote. The law, though, doesn't cover admission to the Florida Bar, so Meade will still need to get his rights restored to work as an attorney in Florida.
Some advocates, including Mark Schlakman, senior program director for Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, are pinning their hopes on national legislation that would restore felon's voting rights for federal elections upon completion of their sentences.
They're hoping the burden of maintaining dual voter registration systems - one for federal and another for state and local elections - would persuade states to drop their restrictions on rights restoration. Bills were introduced in the House and Senate in 2011 but went nowhere. The legislation has not yet been re-filed in the new Congress that began this year.
Groups such as the ACLU and National Association for the Advancement of Colored people say state limits on rights restoration are discriminatory. Some want to make it a high-profile election issue. The ACLU also wants a human rights panel created by the United Nations to review Florida's new rules.
Schlakman and his allies, though, favor a less adversarial approach.
"I do not believe it would be productive to vilify the governor and Cabinet," Schlakman said. "The better course of action would be to underscore why and the extent to which that policy should now be reconsidered."
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report.
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