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For Florida's former ex-convicts, getting back right to vote takes years

Florida's executive clemency board (L to R: Attorney General Pam Bondi; Governor Rick Scott; Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam; Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.) Photo: Renata Sago, WMFE.
Florida's executive clemency board (L to R: Attorney General Pam Bondi; Governor Rick Scott; Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam; Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.) Photo: Renata Sago, WMFE.

More than 5 million of the nation’s formerly convicted felons, under current laws, will not be able to cast ballots in next year’s presidential election. And Florida is now home to the highest number of them. Nearly ten percent of the state’s eligible voters are ex-offenders. To get back their right to vote, they must go before a clemency board. It’s a strict process that can take years. 90.7's Renata Sago watched the board at work in Tallahassee this week and shares her reporting with All Things Considered host Crystal Chavez.

CHAVEZ: Tell us, how many ex-felons in Florida cannot vote?

SAGO: 1.5 million. That’s the latest data from the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that studies these sorts of trends across the country. That’s ten percent of Florida’s voting population who cannot vote more than in any other state. A quarter of them are black.

CHAVEZ: And that’s because Florida has one of the strictest clemency policies.

SAGO: Exactly. Florida is one of three states where once a person commits a felony, they lose their right to vote. The only way to get it back is to make a case before a four-member panel. That includes the governor and the attorney general. Most states offer automatic restoration if the crime’s not serious. And in some states, felons can vote while serving time. Florida’s law dates back to 1868.

CHAVEZ: So in Florida, clemency is granted on a case-by-case basis. You were in Tallahassee this week where the governor and attorney general heard people’s pleas. What happened?

SAGO: Well, the board meets four times a year and sees 70-75 people on average. I met people who had flown in from other states. Or driven across the state. Some had been waiting more than ten years to see the board. And they had five minutes to make their case. This is more than asking the right to vote back. Other rights include permission to own a gun. And applicants are at the mercy of the board.

CHAVEZ: Are there criteria for being granted clemency?

SAGO: Well, the governor has what’s called "unfettered discretion" that means he doesn’t need a reason, he can choose not to give someone their rights back. And that happened. Here’s an what it sounds like when a person’s case is called up before the governor and they’re not there to make a case:

CLERK: Number 59, Kenneth Morrison. He lives in Alabama. He says this is too emotional and he cared not to replay.

SCOTT: Deny restoration of civil rights.

CLERK: Number 60, Carolyn Murray. Has health and financial issues. 

SCOTT: Deny restoration of civil rights.

CHAVEZ: So you can be denied for not showing up?

SAGO: Yes. But the board also looks aT the applicant’s education, home life, work life, looks, and so on. Florida’s American Civil Liberties Union mounted a campaign in 2000 to change clemency rules. That was at the time of the purge that kicked thousands of offenders off the voting rolls. The head of the ACLU Howard Simon is behind a petition to change to the state’s constitution. He calls it a civil rights crisis.

“There is no reason in the world why someone who has made a mistake, been convicted of a crime, served their time, completed all the terms and conditions of their sentence, why their right should not be restored automatically,” he said.

CHAVEZ: So what’s the status of the petition?

SAGO: Well, it’s a grassroots effort that started in March. Right now, volunteers are trying to get some 68,000 signatures in order for the state Supreme Court to review the petition. They have 43,000 signatures so far.

CHAVEZ: Renata, did you speak with anyone who supports the state’s current clemency rules?

SAGO: Yes, one of the biggest supporters—Roger Clegg—who appears in the story that just aired—says once you break the law, you relinquish your civil rights. He thinks people should get their rights back on a case-by-case basis. But that it shouldn’t take years. That, he blames on bureaucracy.

CHAVEZ: Ok, thank you Renata. And we’ll hear more of your reporting on Florida’s voters, correct?

SAGO: Yes, from now until November, I’ll be covering more stories about the state’s voter rolls as part of NPR’s Political Reporting Partnership.

CHAVEZ: Well, we look forward to hearing more from you. Thank you for joining us

SAGO: My pleasure.