SANFORD – When Floridians head to the polls on Nov. 6, to cast votes in a state that will almost certainly be crucial in selecting the next president, more than one million Sunshine State voters will be staying at home – and not by choice.
It’s been estimated that there are more than one million Florida residents who are ineligible to vote because they are convicted felons.
Rules imposed by Florida’s Executive Clemency Board require convicted felons, even those convicted of non-violent offenses, to wait at least five years before they can get their civil rights restored. Florida is one of several states that has a lengthy waiting period before felons released from prison can have their civil rights restored, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, serve in the military, and obtain certain occupational licenses.
It’s a situation that Vince Taylor finds quite frustrating from his position as the chief organizer for the Seminole County chapter of the Florida Civil Rights Association.
“A few weeks back, we had a Restore Your Rights workshop,” Taylor said. “We brought some of our attorneys and were able to assist some felons and look into their background and see if it was possible to restore their rights by having their convictions expunged.”
But he also knows this is not likely to be a speedy process – and certainly not one that will enable most convicted felons to get their rights restored quickly.
The Executive Clemency Board is made up of Florida’s four statewide officeholders: Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, all Republicans.
Early last year, following Scott’s lead, the board voted to toughen the process nonviolent felons need to go through to get full restoration of their civil rights. Under former Gov. Charlie Crist, the board had allowed non-violent felons to petition for the restoration of their civil rights as soon as they got out of prison. But when Scott took office, he successfully pushed for a change that requires nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, finished probation and made full restitution to undergo a five-year waiting period, then begin an application process for restoration of their rights.
For felons with a violent record, it’s a seven year wait.
Taylor said the approach Crist had taken made far more sense, particularly for non-violent offenders.
“It’s one thing when you have a serial rapist or sex offender who is a clear threat to the public,” Taylor said. “But if you have a small bag of marijuana, we don’t see that as comparable with a serial murderer or rapist. If you’re actually sitting there having self-inflicted wounds by using drugs, I’m not trying to condone any drug use, but at the very least it should be looked at through the same lens as those addicted to alcohol or cigarette abuse.”
This has been a frustrating issue for many civil rights leaders. The Central Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has called this a clear form of voter suppression masquerading as a tough law-and-order stance, since the ACLU views voting is a fundamental right and civic duty.
The ACLU as estimated that 30 percent of all black males in Florida are disenfranchised because of this regulation on civil rights restoration.
Other activists have said the change appears aimed at minorities who could be expected to register to vote as Democrats once they get out of prison.
Taylor said he shares that concern – and said if that’s what the Republicans on the Executive Clemency Board are assuming, they could be quite mistaken, especially when it comes to the presidential campaign between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“It’s very easy to tell that all this could be directed toward the black community, since we are 50 percent of the prison population,” Taylor said.
But the political assumptions, he added, are not set in stone.
“Everybody in the black community is not excited about Barack Obama,” Taylor said. “They were in 2008, but this year I’m hearing a lot of people talk about Gary Johnson (the Libertarian Party’s nominee) and some other candidates.”
Those candidates, he said, are third party nominees. Many African American voters, he said, either feel frustrated with what they see as a lack of interest in helping low-income black communities on the part of the White House – and frustration with the Republican Party’s decision to write off the black vote entirely as being safely Democratic.
“I think it says something about the disillusionment with the Republican Party, and it really is a shame,” Taylor said. “This will show a lack of attempt to even reach out to these communities. It’s almost to say, ‘Look, I know them, and there’s nothing I can say to them,’ and that is not true.”
Republicans, he said, should reach out, and not write off, black voters.
“They have never been to the black churches,” Taylor said. “When you write off any portion of the electorate because you didn’t think they will vote your way, how can we be confident that this sentiment won’t carry over past the election, to write us off altogether rather than reach out to us.”
Anyone opposed to the clemency rules can call the office of the Executive Clemency Board at 1-800-435-8286 and voice their concerns.
On Tuesday, the Florida Civil Rights Association joined religious leaders, attorneys and civic groups for a press conference at the Seminole County Supervisor of Elections office to kick-off a statewide campaign called Taking Souls to the Polls in Droves, which will start on Sunday, Oct. 28 – just in time for early voting.
The campaign is part of a national effort to encourage voter participation in the Nov. 6 election, and to mobilize “souls to the polls in droves” on a popular early voting day, Sunday.
The statewide campaign will focus on nine counties in Florida, including Seminole, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Hillsborough, Leon, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade.
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