Local News

Restoring ex-felons' voting rights could become elections issue

SEBRING - In 2013, 116 voters were taken off the Highlands County voting rolls because as convicted felons they automatically lost their civil rights.

That may represent less than 0.2 percent of registered voters in Highlands County, but an issue that has racial and partisan undertones during an election year came on the national forefront last week when Attorney General Eric Holder called on a group of 11 states to restore voting rights to ex-felons, of which Florida is one.

Florida requires that felons wait either five years (for lesser offenses) or seven years (for violent offenses) before they can apply to the state clemency board to ask their civil rights be restored. That includes the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, and the right to hold public office.

The right to own, possess or use firearms carries an eight-year wait from the time an ex-offender's sentence expires or supervision ends.

Highlands County Democratic Party Chairman Dave McCarthy called this "selective voter suppression" by a Republican-led state government trying to suppress Democratic-leaning votes and making it harder for poor and minority voters in general to cast their ballot.

"If convicted felons have served their time and did everything they were supposed to ... they should regain the ability to vote," he said.

Critics say Florida has one of the most restrictive voting restrictions for ex-cons. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition says 1.5 million Floridians are affected by this "civil rights ban."

The ratio of blacks that is affected is higher in states such as Florida, one in five, Holder said, adding such rules disproportionately affect minorities and permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.

Highlands County Republican Party Chairwoman Kathy Rapp questioned why Holder was even wading into something that is a prerogative of the states.

"He may just be playing to his base," she said.

Rapp said states have a right to make their own laws, and most have some kind of process for ex-felons to regain their voting rights.

Both blacks and a greater number of whites are convicted felons, she pointed out, and just as affected.

"It's the law of the land," she said, calling criticism targeting Scott and a Republican Legislature "a political ploy."

Highlands County Deputy Supervisor of Elections Karen Kensinger said the state informs the local elections offices of voters who are convicted of felonies, but the elections office has to follow due process before removing their names from the voting rolls.

The office sends a letter to the address on file and advertises the notice in a newspaper of general circulation in case they don't hear back. Voters have the right to a hearing or to dispute any such action, although Kensinger did not remember many hearings being requested.

Holder does not have the authority to force states to change their laws, but his request could influence the debate to restore voting rights, the Washington Post states.

Some say this could become a campaign issue in Florida's gubernatorial election this year since ex-governor Charlie Crist had loosened restrictions while in office, which Scott tightened when he became governor. The two are now pitted against each other in what is expected to be a hard-fought race.

In April 2007, Crist began allowing certain non-violent offenders to have their rights automatically restored, while Level II (aggravated battery, kidnapping) and Level III felons (murder, sexual assault) were given a review process.

Certain felons were eligible if they completed their sentences or supervision, paid all restitution, and had no pending criminal charges, outstanding detainers or warrants.

The Florida Parole Commission was responsible for determining the appropriate eligibility level and independently verifying each ex-offender's eligibility.

Scott's administration reversed Crist's reforms and also added a waiting period of five or seven years, depending on the crime.

These rules were changed in 2011, to emphasize public safety and ensure that those who request clemency have shown they can abide by the law and are not likely to re-offend, the parole board explained.

Crist's changes enabled 150,000 restorations, though a backlog of 100,000 remained when he left office in January 2011, according to media reports.

In 2011 and 2012, 420 felons' rights were restored, the parole commission states.

The tightening of clemency rules also reduced the number of pending cases, which fell from 32,819 in January 2012 to 21,623 in July 2013.

Meanwhile, reader opinion on Highlands Today's Facebook page remained divided.

Delia Payne said she was in favor of restoring rights since ex-felons had repaid their debt to society.

Sean Eric Silverman disagreed.

"Something tells me when they committed the initial felony they weren't very concerned about their voting rights. Had they been concerned about what they had to lose maybe they wouldn't have made that choice to begin with," Silverman wrote.