Around the Nation
1:24 pm
Mon October 22, 2012

For Many Florida Ex-Cons, Voting Booth Is Off-Limits

Originally published on Mon October 22, 2012 4:44 pm

Across the nation, the number of people who have lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction has grown dramatically in the past three decades. Currently, almost 6 million people don't have that right — and about 1.5 million of them live in Florida.

While some states are making it easier for felons to get their voting rights back, Florida has taken the opposite approach — and the path for former convicts trying to get those rights back is often an arduous one.

Four times each year in the state capital, Tallahassee, Florida Gov. Rick Scott sits in a windowless basement room full of convicted felons. Robbers, sexual molesters, drunk drivers, drug traffickers and others walk to the lectern, one by one, to ask the governor to restore his or her right to vote.

Scott and members of the Board of Executive Clemency pepper the applicants, all of whom have served their sentences, with questions like, "When was the last time you drank, and how much did you drink?"

It's largely the governor who decides, on the spot, the fate of each ex-con. And for many, the outcome isn't good — especially for those applicants who didn't show up. Most often, they are summarily denied the moment their names are read aloud.

Changing Clemency Laws

Limping, Richard Flores slowly walks to the microphone with the aid of a cane. In 1994, Flores was a 29-year-old software engineer. Charged with vehicular homicide in Sarasota, he was found guilty in a car crash that killed two people. He served one year of house arrest — and has been waiting years for this moment.

"I'm really just here to show my respect for the board," Flores says. "This is very important to me."

On this day, Flores is a lucky man — Scott has decided in his favor. At age 47, Flores can now vote, hold public office or serve on a jury. There are other things he is also eligible to do, like become a lawyer or join the military.

It's been 18 years since he last voted. Flores says he's not asking for sympathy. But, he says, "even if someone is despicable, they should be able to vote."

Disenfranchisement laws are as old as the United States. In Florida, they were created in the 19th century to keep newly freed slaves from voting, and remain on the books today. The state's clemency laws, the subject of intense debate since the 2000 presidential election, have also swung back and forth over the years.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, known as a progressive Republican at the time, changed the state's clemency laws in 2007. He worked to streamline the restoration of rights for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes, and restored the rights of close to 6,000 felons during his last year in office.

But last year, Scott, also a Republican, changed the law. Today, all ex-felons — even those convicted of a nonviolent offense — must wait five or seven years before they can apply for restoration. This year, fewer than 200 former felons have had their civil rights restored.

Currently, the state has a backlog of more than 19,000 applications, and about 10 percent of the Florida voting population is denied the vote. That level of disenfranchisement has raised concerns about the disproportionate percentage of voters in poor and minority communities.

"It's a basic premise of a representative country — if a class of people are allowed not to vote, then politicians don't have to care about that class of people," Flores says.

Re-Entering 'The Social Contract'

"The felon makes the decision to violate the law, and that's why they lose their right to vote," says Hans von Spakovsky, a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He says he supports the Florida governor's approach.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with a state, such as Florida, putting in a waiting period of five to seven years so that they can see that the felon has basically re-entered the social contract and that they have turned over a new leaf," von Spakovsky says.

Across the nation, clemency laws vary widely. Vermont and Maine allow prisoners to vote while incarcerated. Many states have moved toward automatic restoration for ex-felons when they get out of prison. Kentucky, Iowa, Virginia and Florida have the nation's toughest laws.

Florida's clemency board officials — including Gov. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who crafted the 2011 changes — declined requests to speak with NPR. But in a written statement to NPR, the governor's press secretary said the changes are largely based on a law-and-order philosophy.

"Gov. Scott feels that convicted felons need to have an opportunity to show they can be law-abiding members of society before those rights are restored," the statement says.

'Not Even A Citizen'

In the Orlando neighborhood of Parramore, Eddie Walker, a pastor at In God's Time Tabernacle of Jesus Christ, preaches on a subject close to him. About 60 percent of his congregation — a big chunk of this neighborhood, he says — doesn't have the right to vote.

Walker is one of them. He spent five years in prison for drug trafficking after a 1995 conviction. "I've been feeling like I'm not even a citizen since I got out of prison," he says.

Walker's makeshift church is housed in a building the size of a school classroom. Many congregants are struggling with addiction, recovery, poverty and prison.

Walker says it's not just individuals being punished in Florida, but entire communities like his. He says people here worry about covering basic needs like food and shelter for their families, and that most have given up.

But Walker says he hasn't. "If you can't see the change in Eddie Walker, it's because you are not looking for a change," he says.

For many here, including Walker, restoration of voting rights won't come for years. But for now, all Walker asks is for people to see the person he is today.

"Don't keep treating me like I burglarize places, don't keep treating me like I'm still selling drugs, don't keep treating me like I'm stealing something from somebody."

Treat me, Walker says, like I'm living right now.

This story is part of the student journalism project News21's voting rights coverage.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A chance at a normal life. For many felons who were rightfully convicted, who served their time and are now trying to rebuild their lives, a normal life includes the right to vote. But across the country, the number of people who can't vote because of a felony conviction has grown dramatically in recent years. It's now nearly six million. About one and a half million live in Florida.

While many states are making it easier for felons to get their voting rights back, Andrea Rumbaugh and Michael Ciaglo report that Florida has made it tougher.

MICHAEL CIAGLO, BYLINE: Four times a year in Tallahassee, Florida Governor Rick Scott sits in a room full of convicted felons.

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: Good morning. How are you today?

CIAGLO: We are in a windowless basement room at the state capital. One by one, felons walk to the lectern to ask the governor to restore his or her right to vote. Convicted robbers, sexual molesters, drunk drivers, drug traffickers and others, all have served their sentences.

The Board of Executive Clemency and Governor Scott pepper the applicants with questions.

SCOTT: When was the last time you drank and how much do you drink?

CIAGLO: It's largely the governor who decides their fate, right there on the spot. And for many, the outcome isn't good, especially for those who didn't show up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ralph Hofer.

SCOTT: I deny restoration of civil rights.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ronald Luna.

SCOTT: I deny restoration of civil rights.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And Steven C. Palmer.

SCOTT: I deny restoration of civil rights.

CIAGLO: While some cases elicit a barrage of questions, some get none.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Number 35, Robert Richard Flores is here.

CIAGLO: Limping and using a cane, Richard Flores slowly walks to the microphone. In 1994, then 29 and a software engineer, Flores was charged with vehicular homicide in Sarasota. He was found guilty in a car crash that killed two people. He served one year of house arrest. He's been waiting years for this moment.

ROBERT RICHARD FLORES: I'm really just here to show my respect for the board that this is very important to me...

CIAGLO: Currently, Florida has a backlog of more than 19,000 applications for restoration of civil rights. This year, less than 200 former felons have gotten their civil rights restored so far. Today, all ex-felons must wait five or seven years after they serve their sentence before they can apply.

On this day, Richard Flores is a lucky man. Governor Scott delivers the news.

SCOTT: Congratulations on your restoration of civil rights.

FLORES: Thank you.

CIAGLO: At age 47, his rights are restored. Flores can vote now, hold public office, serve on a jury. And there are other things he can do now, too, like become a lawyer and maybe join the military. It's been 18 years since he last voted. Flores says he's not asking for sympathy.

FLORES: Even if someone is despicable, they should be able to vote.

CIAGLO: In Florida, about 10 percent of the voting population is denied the vote. That raises concerns about the disproportionate percentages of people in poor and minority communities.

FLORES: It's a very basic premise of a representative country. If a class of people are allowed not to vote, then politicians don't have to care about that class of people.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: The felon makes the decision to violate the law and that's why they lose their right to vote.

CIAGLO: Hans von Spakovsky is a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He says he supports Governor Scott's approach.

SPAKOVSKY: I don't think there's anything wrong with a state, such as Florida, putting in a waiting period of five to seven years so that they can see that the felon has basically, you know, re-entered the social contract and that they have turned over a new leaf.

CIAGLO: Across the nation, clemency laws vary widely. Many states have moved to an automatic restoration for ex-felons when they get out of prison. Only Vermont and Maine allow prisoners to vote while incarcerated. Kentucky, Iowa, Virginia and Florida have the toughest laws.

Florida's clemency board officials, including Governor Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who crafted the changes, declined requests to speak with NPR. But in a written statement, the governor's press secretary told NPR that the changes are largely based on a law and order philosophy.

Quote, "Governor Scott feels that convicted felons need to have an opportunity to show they can be law-abiding members of society before those rights are restored."

For NPR News, I'm Michael Ciaglo.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) My rock, my sword and shield. He is my will. He is my will in the middle of a...

ANDREA RUMBAUGH, BYLINE: This Andrea Rumbaugh in the Orlando, a neighborhood called Parramore in the downtown area and a church called In God's Time Tabernacle of Jesus Christ.

EDDIE WALKER: We've been fighting for the right restoration of our civil rights. Amen?

RUMBAUGH: Pastor Eddie Walker preaches on a subject close to him. About 60 percent of his congregation, a big chunk of this neighborhood, he says doesn't have the right to vote.

WALKER: You see, I've been feeling like I'm not even a citizen since I've been out of prison.

RUMBAUGH: Walker was convicted in 1995 and spent five years in prison for drug trafficking.

The makeshift church is housed in a building the size of a school classroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (unintelligible)

RUMBAUGH: A handful of kids stand up to step. People here can take all the uplifting they can get. Many here are struggling with addiction, recovery, poverty and prison. Walker says it's not just individuals being punished in Florida, but entire communities like his. Most have given up. He says people here worry about covering basic needs, like food and shelter for their families, but Walker says he's not giving up.

WALKER: If you can't see the change in Eddie Walker, then it's because you are not looking for a change.

RUMBAUGH: For many here, restoration won't come for years. But for now, all Pastor Walker asks is for people to see the person he is today.

WALKER: Don't keep treating me like I'm still burglarize places, don't keep treating me like I'm still selling drugs, don't keep treating me like I'm stealing something from somebody.

RUMBAUGH: Treat me, he says, like I'm living right now. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Rumbaugh.

BLOCK: That story came to us from News 21, a nationwide project of student journalists and it was produced by NPR's Marisa Penaloza. You can see photos of some of the people who've fought to have their voting rights restored in Florida. That's at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.