TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A day after a stinging defeat handed down by an appeals court, ministers and civil rights leaders --- including national talk-show host Al Sharpton --- rallied Thursday at the state Capitol to rev up support for a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would automatically restore voting rights for most Florida felons.
A march from Bethel Missionary Baptist Church to the steps of the Old Capitol, planned weeks ago, followed a late-night ruling Wednesday from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a bitterly fought challenge to the state’s vote-restoration system.
The appellate court handed Gov. Rick Scott and the other members of the Board of Executive Clemency a decisive victory by blocking a federal judge’s order that would have required the state to overhaul Florida’s process of restoring the right to vote to felons by Thursday.
In a series of rulings, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker found the state’s vote-restoration process violated First Amendment rights and Fourteenth Amendment equal-protection rights of felons. Last month, he gave Scott and the board until Thursday to revamp what the judge called a “fatally flawed” process and rejected a request by Attorney General Pam Bondi to put his order on hold.
But in its 2-1 decision Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appellate court not only granted the state’s request to put Walker’s decision on hold but also indicated the district judge’s invalidation of the vote-restoration process likely would not stand.
Thursday’s march and rally, featuring Sharpton and civil-rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, were organized around what was expected to be the release of the state’s new vote-restoration process as ordered by Walker.
Instead, the 11th Circuit’s decision stirred up already impassioned supporters of the proposed constitutional amendment as they gathered on the steps of the Old Capitol.
“I think that we are absolutely fired up. I intend to spend a lot of time here, and I know that others with national prominence will. More importantly, local citizens are energized. Many would have felt that there was hope if the appellate court had not ruled. But by ruling on the eve of this rally, they gave us the impetus to really build a movement,” Sharpton told The News Service of Florida and other reporters following the noon rally.
The proposed amendment, backed by the political committee “Floridians for a Fair Democracy” and largely bankrolled by the American Civil Liberties Union, would automatically restore the right to vote for felons who have served their sentences, completed probation and paid restitution. Murderers and sex offenders would not be eligible.
Home to an estimated 1.6 million convicted felons, Florida is one of a handful of states that do not automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. An estimated 600,000 felons could have their voting rights restored if voters approve the measure, which will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 4.
Although a majority of the convicted felons in Florida who have lost their right to vote are white, blacks are disproportionately represented among the felon population.
So it’s no surprise that felon disenfranchisement sparks intensely emotional responses from African-Americans like those who gathered in downtown Tallahassee under sunny skies Thursday. Many people at the rally began weathering civil-rights storms decades ago.
For some, Florida’s labyrinthine vote-restoration process is viewed as a modern form of lynching and is a vestige of Jim Crow-era laws designed to keep blacks from casting ballots.
And disenfranchisement also prevents felons who’ve completed their sentences from serving on juries, said Crump, a lawyer who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, a black teen whose shooting death in 2012 in Seminole County drew international attention.
Drawing cheers from the crowd of more 150, Crump said he discovered early in his career that in many courthouses, “the only thing black is you, your client and the judge’s robe.”
The “legalization of discrimination is real, and it’s affecting us in ways we cannot even imagine,” he said.
Felons who are unable to vote are effectively shut out of society, the lawyer added.
“They’re like the walking dead. They just ain’t got the death certificate,” he said.
Florida’s current vote-restoration process began early in 2011, shortly after Scott and Bondi took office. The Republican officials played key roles in changing the process to effectively make it harder for felons to get their rights restored.
Scott’s office has adamantly backed the process, saying the governor is standing with crime victims.
Under the process, felons must wait five or seven years after their sentences are complete to apply to have rights restored. After applications are filed, the process can take years to complete.
Since the changes went into effect in 2011, Scott --- whose support is required for any type of clemency to be granted --- and the board have restored the rights of 3,005 of the more than 30,000 convicted felons who’ve applied, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. There’s currently a backlog of 10,085 pending applications, according to the commission.
In contrast, more than 155,000 ex-felons had their right to vote automatically restored during the four years of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s tenure, according to court documents.
Florida will be “ground zero” to “turn around this affront on voting rights” for felons during the 2018 election season, Sharpton predicted.
“We are going to turn on the light in the Sunshine State,” he said. “There is no more critical issue in this land.”
Mark McMillan, a convicted felon who leads the Tallahassee-based Divine Revelations Ministries with his wife, told the News Service he had his rights restored automatically in New York and Texas for his decades-old out-of-state convictions.
But the restoration didn’t apply in Florida, McMillan, 49, learned.
“I moved back here about six years ago, and my rights were gone,” said McMillan, whose community-based outreach includes a focus on felons.
He applied to have his rights restored four years ago but was told by the clemency board that it would be up to 10 years before he would get a hearing.
“I can’t vote, and my charges are from almost 20 years ago,” McMillan said.
News Service of Florida