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Florida clemency panel gives felons path to regain vote

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Board of Executive Clemency voted unanimously Tuesday to allow felons to apply to have their voting rights restored upon completion of their sentences, even if they have unpaid fines and other legal debts.

The move, which comes amid ongoing clashes over felons’ access to the ballot box in Florida, provides some with outstanding legal financial obligations a potential avenue to regain their right to vote ahead of this year’s presidential race.

But it was not immediately clear how many felons the rule change might help, considering the backlog of cases already before the clemency review board.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has called for new clemency rules that automatically restore voting rights to all felons who have completed their sentences. Fried sits on the Board of Executive Clemency along with the governor, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Through letters to her Clemency Board colleagues and at town hall meetings across the state, she has repeatedly called for automatically restoring civil and voting rights, and for clearing the backlog of 10,000 clemency applicants for restoration of civil rights.

Currently, some felons must wait a minimum of seven years to apply for the restoration of many of their civil rights.

In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed a measure known as Amendment 4 that restored voting rights to some 1.4 million felons upon completion of their sentences.

But legal disputes soon erupted after lawmakers moved to specify that only felons who have satisfied all conditions of their sentence — including unpaid fines and other financial obligations — could regain access to the ballot box under Amendment 4.

“This rule revision is a good first step, but a very small step, only making it easier to apply for restoration of civil rights,” Fried said, adding that the rule will have no effect on the current backlog of 10,000 pending applications.

Voting rights advocates have sued the state in federal court seeking to restore the vote to a small group of clients. A trial is not expected to begin until this spring, and any subsequent ruling is likely to be appealed.

Last week, the state Supreme Court delivered an advisory opinion siding with the governor and the Republican-led Legislature, both of which argue that felons can only regain the right to vote under Amendment 4 until they have paid all fines, restitution and other legal debts.