Felon voting rights fix deadline is tomorrow: Scott meets with clemency board tonight (UPDATED)

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From the Orlando Sentinel:
…the Atlanta-based U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals prevented a late-night meeting of the Florida Clemency Board, which was called by Gov. Rick Scott to comply with the lower court’s Thursday deadline to adopt new voting rights restoration rules.

 A felon voting rights fix will appear on Florida’s November ballot, but a court deems that too long to wait.

By GARY FINEOUT, Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Confronted with a federal judge’s looming deadline, Florida Gov. Rick Scott called an extraordinary late-night meeting of top state officials Wednesday to decide what to do about the state’s process for restoring voting rights to former prisoners. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker gave Florida until Thursday to create a new process after ruling in February that the state’s system is unconstitutional and arbitrary, with decisions possibly swayed by politics and racial factors.

The original February 1 ruling gave parties on both sides (the state and the plaintiffs) 10 days to submit proposed remedies. When that didn’t happen, Judge Walker ruled the state had 30 days to comply, beginning his order with

This Court is not the Vote-Restoration Czar. It does not pick and choose who may receive the right to vote and who may not. Nor does it write the rules and regulations for the Executive Clemency Board … as it has done in the past, this Court invited the parties to recommend appropriate remedial action. Defendants essentially repackage the current scheme into proposed remedies permitting the Governor and Board to do, as
the Governor described, “whatever we want” in denying voting rights to hundreds of thousands of their constituents. ECF No. 144, at 2 (citation
omitted). This will not do. And Defendants’ proposed remedy to abandon the whole vote-restoration scheme does not pass constitutional muster. 

The state sought to put Walker’s ruling on hold, but an appeals court hasn’t acted on that request, so Scott scheduled a clemency board meeting for 9:30 p.m. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has filed an emergency motion asking a federal appeals court to give the state more time to respond to a ruling on voting rights.

The board consists of Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and two other elected Republicans. It’s not clear yet what Florida’s GOP officials will do to comply with the ruling, which the Scott administration has criticized as “haphazard.” The governor’s office has said ultimate decisions on voting rights should be left to the governor and other state officials.

Mark Schlakman, director of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, called it “bizarre” to schedule a late-night meeting to address a ruling that came out weeks ago. Schlakman, who once helped with clemency cases and filed briefs in the legal battle, said the decision suggests “there was no genuine interest in securing public comment.” He added that also that it appears “there was no expectation that they would need to comply with the court order.”

Midterm elections will be impacted by voting issues, and vice versa.

The clash comes as Scott campaigns for the U.S. Senate seat of Democrat Bill Nelson in a state where as many as 1.5 million felons remain disenfranchised despite having served their sentences and otherwise paid their debts to society. Florida’s constitution automatically bars felons from being able to vote after leaving prison, and Walker’s ruling left that ban intact. Instead, he took aim at how the state considers who should get their rights restored.

Under the current system, a former prisoner must wait between five and seven years before they can even ask to have their voting rights back. The governor and the three elected Cabinet members then decide each request individually, subject to the governor’s unilateral veto.

It wasn’t always this way. Shortly after taking office in 2007, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist convinced two of the state’s three Cabinet members to approve rules allowing the parole commission to restore voting rights for nonviolent felons without hearings, and ultimately more than 100,000 felons were allowed to vote again.

Scott and state officials changed the process in 2011, and since then fewer than 3,000 have had their rights restored.

Following up on his February ruling, Walker ordered the state in late March — without giving any specific instructions — to overhaul the process. The clemency board — without holding a public meeting to discuss the ruling — appealed. Walker responded sharply, telling the state in early April to comply by Thursday.

The legal battle is occurring just months before Florida voters will be asked to alter the current ban. Backers of a constitutional amendment won a place on the November 2018 ballot. If 60 percent of voters approve, most former prisoners would have their rights automatically restored. Desmond Meade, chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, said his group wants the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put the legal case on hold until voters decide.

Through a grassroots movement, Floridians put Amendment 4 on the ballot to fix the current, broken system and take these decisions out of the hands of politicians,” Meade said in a statement. “… The problem is that without Amendment 4, any fix still leaves this decision in the hands of politicians and a person’s eligibility to vote should not be left up to politicians and election cycles.”

JoEllen Schilke contributed to this story.