Voting rights may seem simple: generally, you must be an American citizen, at least eighteen years of age, and you must be registered to vote. However, in the state of Florida, you can lose that right if you are convicted on a felony charge. It does not matter if the crime itself was violent or not. As long as it was a felony, you are not legally allowed to vote after a conviction.
There is one way to get that right restored: the clemency review process. Clemency is basically mercy from the government, and in this case, it would specifically mean that the Office of Executive Clemency feels you deserve to have your right to vote back. However, a large movement created by voting rights organizations exposed the process being flawed and possibly biased. Keep reading for information and recent news on the fight over the clemency process and felons’ voting rights.
The Office of Executive Clemency
To describe this process, imagine that you have been found guilty of a felony and you are serving time in prison. However, an election is coming up and you are eager to get back your right to vote, so you can do your civic duty and join fellow citizens in choosing your representatives.
For this, you have to turn to the Office of Executive Clemency, the board that hears cases and decides whether to grant or deny clemency. This board consists of four people – the Governor, the Attorney General, the Chief Financial Officer, and the Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services – and you need the approval of the Governor and at least two members to receive clemency.
The Clemency Review Process
Applicants face many obstacles in the process to receive clemency from the board. The first is having to complete the terms of their sentence. Any fines must be paid, any prison time must be served, and every assigned hour of community service must be performed before the board will consider your case.
First, you must actually apply for a Restoration of Civil Rights (RCR) case. After you do, the next step is waiting for the board to meet and conduct hearings. The challenge here is that the four individuals who make up the board have many other tasks and duties due to their high positions of power. This means they only meet four days each year. Ideally, you would want them to see your case on one of those four days.
This leaves them with little time to look at cases, and the Miami Herald reports that this has created “a backlog of more than 10,000 unresolved cases.” Felons have had to wait between five and ten years for their case to be reviewed. Because of this, you may have to not only skip the upcoming election but several midterms and general election.
In the end, whenever you do present your case to the board, you might not even be granted clemency. The rules clearly state, “The Governor has the unfettered discretion to deny clemency for any time, for any reason.” This means that you may be denied your right to vote because the board believes you did not show that you have changed enough, or because they simply disliked your attitude, or for any other reason.
The Fight for the Rights of Felons
Florida is one of only three states that do not automatically restore the voting rights of felons upon their release, and advocates for voters’ rights have been very critical of the restoration process. Criticism has been so high to the point that it in February, a federal judge ruled that the system violated the U.S. Constitution. U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker stated, “To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide this panel.”
Walker later ordered the Office of Executive Clemency to come up with a new process by April 26. However, on April 25, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals delayed the ruling, keeping the current system in place. It remains unchanged, and the board continues to hear cases – including in the run-up to the 2018 midterm election, where current state governor Rick Scott is running for state senator. ABC News has pointed out the potential conflict of interest in a political candidate effectively choosing who can and cannot vote.
Citizens are doing their own part to fight for felons’ voting rights. The calls for change have grown so much that activist groups collected enough signatures to include an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot in the 2018 midterm elections. If 60% of voters say yes to Amendment 4, this would give felons the right to vote immediately after they finish serving their sentences. The requirements for citizens to propose Florida constitutional amendments are immensely difficult, and overcoming them shows that many people take this issue seriously.
With the way that the clemency system currently works, a convicted felon will want a sharp attorney on their side to assist them in regaining their rights. Anyone charged with a felony can also benefit from having a lawyer represent them in court. If either of these situations applies to you or a loved one, do not hesitate to reach out to the Law Offices of Michael A. Gottlieb, P.A. today. Call us at 954-256-8567 and receive a free consultation.