Florida’s controversial process for restoring rights to felons who have served their time drew national media to Tallahassee Tuesday, where Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet met as the Executive Board of Clemency.
It was the last clemency hearing before the November election, and national news outlets came to watch Florida’s antiquated state process, which requires people who completed their sentences years ago stand before the state’s top elected officials and plead to get back their rights to vote, carry a firearm, or run for public office.
A measure that will appear on Florida’s ballot Nov. 6 – Amendment 4 – would do away with the current clemency process, and instead automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their time (except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.) Florida is one of only four states where felons lose their right to vote permanently, and it has an enormous potential impact on the state’s elections – especially since margins are notoriously close.
An estimated 1.7 million Floridians are disenfranchised due to a past felony conviction. More than one in five of those people are African American, according to data gathered by The Sentencing Project. Many other states automatically restore felons’ voting rights after a period of years, and advocates for Amendment 4 want Florida to join their ranks.
The Phoenix noticed some additional reporters in the audience at the clemency meeting Tuesday, and Florida Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout noted on Twitter that they were from the (UK) Guardian, National Public Radio, HuffPost, Mic News and the New York Times.
Florida was the butt of a national joke this week when comedian and television host John Oliver made a direct appeal to Floridians to vote for Amendment 4 in November. Sixty percent of voters have to approve the measure for it to become law.
In his Emmy-nominated HBO show “Last Week Tonight, ” Oliver wore a Gators hat (sorry, Seminoles), sat next to a pink flamingo lawn ornament, looked into the camera and said: “This November, Florida, you have got a real chance to remedy a mistake and do something genuinely good for over a million of your citizens.”
Oliver’s segment showed clips of Gov. Scott explaining, over and over in numerous clemency meetings, that the state has no guidelines for granting rights to felons.
“There’s absolutely no standards, so we can make any decisions we want,” the clip on Oliver’s segment shows the governor telling applicants. Oliver was pretty outraged about that, pointing out that people spend years going through the process before they can even appear before the board.
“You’re given 10 minutes to prove you’ve turned your life around, they then question you before making a decision that’s completely arbitrary,” Oliver said. “Once you’ve jumped through all those hoops, your fate is in a panel that does not have to explain their reasoning to you.”
Also on the Oliver segment: Clips of Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis asking clemency applicants repeatedly at different meetings whether they went to church – which Oliver pointed out was pretty unrelated whether someone should get the right to vote or not. As the Florida Phoenix reported in July, Patronis asked an African-American man at a June meeting how many children he had and by how many different mothers, sparking outrage from Florida’s NAACP and other groups. Patronis, a Republican, is running for election Nov. 6 against Democrat Jeremy Ring.
Ninety people were on the list Tuesday to petition Gov. Scott and Florida Cabinet members Attorney General Pam Bondi, Patronis and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam. A dozen or so did not show, but the board ruled on their cases anyway.
Gov. Scott, AG Bondi and CFO Patronis made quick exits at the end of the hearing. Commissioner of Ag Putnam allowed reporters to ask a couple questions outside his office.
– Florida Phoenix Editor-in-chief Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.