Robin Fuson
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Push To Restore Voting Rights Of Ex-Felons Has Broad Support

Criminal Defense

If a proposal to restore voting rights to ex-felons in Florida passes in November, how will the Voting Restoration Amendment work? Will it help ex-felons? If you or someone you love has a criminal record in Florida, this potential amendment may help.

The Voting Restoration Amendment gained momentum when state officials recently certified it to be placed before the voters in November.

WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY NOW?

What is the current law regarding the rights of ex-felons in the state of Florida, and why is a change being proposed?

As the law stands now in Florida, a convicted ex-felon cannot vote, serve on a jury, or hold public office until that person’s civil rights have been restored.

An ex-felon must apply for the restoration of his or her civil rights with the state’s Office of Executive Clemency, called the “Clemency Board.” The Governor and members of the Cabinet make up the Clemency Board.

HOW IS CLEMENCY OBTAINED?

To qualify for clemency, an ex-felon must have paid all outstanding court-ordered fines and restitution and must not have any pending criminal charges or outstanding detainers or warrants.

The Clemency Board considers a number of factors when determining whether to restore someone’s civil rights, including:

1. the nature and circumstances of the offender’s conviction
2. the offender’s overall criminal record including traffic offenses
3. the offender’s employment history
4. the offender’s mental health, any drug or alcohol issues, and any domestic violence issues
5. letters submitted by others in support or opposition to the clemency application

Clemency isn’t easy to win in this state. Depending on the offense, an ex-felon must wait either five or seven years after completing his or her sentence or supervision to apply for clemency.

HOW DOES THE CLEMENCY BOARD OPERATE?

Florida has a backlog of about 12,000 people who are awaiting clemency hearings, and that’s one reason offered in support of the Voting Restoration Amendment.

The state’s Clemency Board meets only four times a year, and it considers only 50 to 75 cases at each meeting.

If you are interested in seeking clemency, you should schedule a meeting to discuss your situation with an experienced Tampa criminal defense attorney.

ARE THERE ALTERNATIVES TO CLEMENCY?

But because clemency is so difficult to obtain, some ex-felons have sought expungements and the sealing of records as alternatives to clemency.

If you qualify, Florida lets you seal or expunge a criminal arrest record.

If your case was dismissed, dropped, or no-billed (not filed) it can be expunged.

If the adjudication was withheld, you may be able to have the record sealed.

In Florida, expungement and the sealing of records is exceedingly complicated, and not every ex-felon will be able to have his or her records sealed or convictions expunged.

IF YOU ARE AN EX-FELON, HOW CAN A LAWYER HELP?

A good defense lawyer can determine if you qualify for expungement or record sealing, and if you do, the attorney will walk you through the process.

To become state law, the Voting Restoration Amendment will need support from sixty percent of the state’s voters this November.

That threshold means the proposal will need support from voters in both parties.

DO OTHER STATES PERMANENTLY BAR EX-FELONS FROM VOTING?

Desmond Meade, who chairs Floridians for a Fair Democracy, is optimistic. “Forgiveness is something that’s inherent in everyone,” he explains.

Currently, Florida permanently bans ex-felons from voting unless they obtain clemency.

Only Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, and Iowa permanently ban ex-felons from voting.

According to Darryl Paulson, Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida, “Nobody disenfranchises more felons in the nation than Florida.”

HOW MANY MAY BE AFFECTED BY THE PROPOSED AMENDMENT?

In total, approximately 1.6 million citizens of Florida – and about one in four African-Americans – are barred from casting a vote in our state.

In recent years, Republicans have generally opposed efforts to restore voting rights to ex-felons because of the impact those votes would have on elections.

With one million more votes in the Democrat column, for instance, Donald Trump would not have won Florida, and Rick Scott would not be the governor.

WILL THE PROPOSED AMENDMENT HAVE ENOUGH SUPPORT?

Republicans have even sued former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who issued an executive order to reinstate the voting rights of more than 200,000 ex-convicts in Virginia.

Supporters of the Voting Restoration Amendment are trying to avoid partisan acrimony in Florida, and they are getting important help from key Republicans.

For example, Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a Republican congressman from south Florida, is a vocal supporter of the Voting Restoration Amendment.

WHAT DID ONE MEMBER OF CONGRESS REALIZE ABOUT EX-FELONS?

“After studying the issue, he realized many of these Floridians have paid their debt to society, chosen a new path and are now contributing to our local community and state in a positive way,” explained Curbelo’s communications director, Joanna Rodriguez.

Curbelo believes politics should play no role in the debate. Rodriguez added that “the congressman believes it is disappointing and irresponsible for both sides to turn this into a political issue.”

IS THE GOVERNOR TAKING A POSITION ON THE PROPOSED AMENDMENT?

A spokesperson representing Governor Scott’s office has said that the governor will not be endorsing either side of the ballot proposal.

Kerri Wyland, speaking for Governor Scott, said, “The governor has been clear that the most important thing to him is that felons can show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities.”

Professor Darryl Paulson adds, “I just think it’s an extraordinarily conservative thing to do … to support voter equality.”

CAN THE RESTORATION OF RIGHTS REDUCE RECIDIVISM?

Paulson cites a 2011 Florida Parole Commission report which found that ex-felons with their civil rights restored have a recidivism rate of 11 percent, but ex-felons without their rights restored have a recidivism rate three times higher – at 33 percent.

“If conservatives really want to cut back on crime and get people returned as tax-paying members of society, the best way to do it is to restore the felon vote,” Paulson insists.

Professor Paulson’s position is shared by “conservative” organizations that include Florida Tax Watch, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Koch Foundation.

WHAT DOES THE VOTING RESTORATION AMENDMENT PROVIDE?

If approved, the Voting Restoration Amendment will automatically restore voting rights in Florida to ex-felons who complete their prison term, parole, or probation.

It will not restore rights to those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.

If you have a felony conviction, learn more about the current law, clemency, expungements, and the sealing of criminal records by speaking to an experienced Tampa criminal defense attorney.

Robin Fuson
By Robin Fuson