When someone convicted of a crime is released from prison and completes probation, in theory she has paid her debt to society. But in three U.S. states, punishment doesn’t end when someone walks out of prison. In Kentucky, Iowa, and Florida, the right to vote is permanently revoked for anyone convicted of a felony. There’s only one way to regain it. Essentially, beg the governor.
It is a difficult, stressful process for most applicants, as our reporters found when they attended a Florida clemency hearing earlier this year for the Fusion investigative documentary Rigged.
“Yes, they have committed crimes, but they paid for those crimes. They are humans and they should be allowed to move on,” says Desmond Meade, who earned a law degree after serving time in prison–and realized along the way people convicted of a crime are ineligible to apply to the Florida Bar until their rights are restored. He is now helping to lead a grassroots effort to amend the state constitution so that he and others who were convicted of felonies and completed their sentences can get their full voting and legal rights automatically restored.
The Florida Constitution bars former prisoners from voting “until restoration of civil rights.” Kentucky and Iowa have similar laws. In Florida, those who served prison terms for a felony are also ineligible to run for office, sit on juries, or possess firearms. Convictions can exclude people from certain professions, like firefighting and law. Currently, more than 10% of the state’s voting-age population is ineligible to vote because of these rules, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That’s 1.7 million people — almost a quarter of the 6.1 million Americans disenfranchised because of their felony convictions.
Meade helped work on a proposed amendment to the state constitution, as part of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and is working to get the measure on the state ballot in 2018. If it passes, people’s voting rights would be automatically restored after they complete all the terms of their sentence, unless they were convicted of murder or a sex crime.
Meade’s road to voting rights activist was a bumpy one. He says he had a drug addiction. He was kicked out of the Army for stealing liquor and partied heavily while working as a bodyguard in Miami. Public records show that in the early 2000s, he was convicted of multiple felonies, including battery and drug charges, and then for possessing a firearm, which is illegal for people with felony convictions. He served three years and later ended up homeless. It was then that he made the decision to turn his life around. He graduated from law school at Florida International University in 2014.
Prior to 2007, those convicted of felonies in Florida who wanted their voting rights restored had to go through a background investigation, then a clemency hearing. But that year, Republican Governor Charlie Crist simplified the process to automatically restore most rights after they completed their sentences. “This is about fundamental fairness,” Crist, who is now running for Congress as a Democrat, said at the time. “When someone pays their debt to society, it is paid in full.”
More than 155,000 people regained their rights under Crist. Critics later groused many of those people voted Democratic and helped elect Barack Obama. Republican leaders never forgave Crist. He left the governor’s office to run for the U.S. Senate–but lost to Republican Marco Rubio.
Rick Scott took Crist’s place as Florida’s governor in 2011. In his first year in office, at the behest of Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, Scott’s clemency board rolled back those 2007 reforms. A representative for Bondi said at the time that the new process’s delay gave people time “to attest to their rehabilitation and commitment to living a crime-free life.”
Now, if former prisoners want their rights restored, they must wait five to seven years after their prison term ends, then fill out an application (five for most nonviolent, nonsexual felonies; seven for violent or sexual crimes). They must not be arrested during this time, or the clock resets.
Those eligible after five years do not need to attend a hearing, but the state is vague about when and why their rights may, or may not, be restored. Applicants can check a website to see if they have been approved. Those required to wait seven years to apply must then wait again to be scheduled for a clemency hearing in the state capital Tallahassee. There, they plead their case directly to the Executive Clemency Board, aka the governor and his cabinet. Right now that consists of Scott, Bondi, and two other white Republican Cabinet members.
Clemency is granted if the governor and two board members agree to it –but “the Governor has the unfettered discretion to deny clemency at any time, for any reason,” according to the rules.
Fusion reached out to Governor Scott and Bondi’s offices for comment. Bondi’s office did not respond. The governor’s spokesperson Taryn Fenske said former prisoners “have to demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime, show a willingness to request to have their rights restored, and show restitution to the victims of their crimes. When it comes to voting, the Governor’s goal is 100% participation and zero% fraud.”
Kelly Corder, Director of Communications for the Florida Commission on Offender Review (FCOR), provided data to Fusion specifying that between 2011 and 2015, Scott’s clemency board received applications from 24,508 felons requesting restoration of civil rights. Between 2011 and October 5 of this year, they granted rights to 2,330. Fusion had asked for data broken down to include race of applicants, and the reason for denial, but that was not provided. It’s unclear whether the state tracks those statistics.
What is clear is that those who do get their rights back seem unlikely to reoffend. According to FCOR data, in calendar years 2014 and 2015 only 0.4% of all those whose rights had been reinstated committed new crimes.
Corder did not answer questions about why there is a backlog, how long the average applicant must wait for a hearing, or whether the clemency board is doing anything to speed up the process, except to say, “Applications are reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency and investigated by the Commission in the order they are received.” Corder added that the application process varies for each applicant so it was impossible to speculate on the timeframe for each case.
In Virginia this past April, governor Terry McAuliffe used his executive power to restore civil rights to all those in the state with a felony conviction — even murderers and rapists. Critics once again pounced, suggesting that the move was political favor for McAuliffe’s longtime friend Hillary Clinton, assuming that many of those former prisoners would vote for Democrats this fall. The Virginia Supreme Court overruled McAuliffe on his right to issue blanket, mass pardons in July, so McAuliffe has since been going through, case by case, restoring rights to more than 67,000 people.
Trump has repeatedly accused McAuliffe of “letting criminals cancel out the votes of law-abiding citizens.”
Meanwhile, Florida’s clemency board has been accused of keeping ex-felons from the polls for political purposes. Scott chairs a super PAC working to elect Donald Trump; Bondi faced scrutiny for accepting, then later returning, a $25,000 campaign donation from Donald Trump around the same time she declined to investigate his for-profit Trump University.
Meade says that even after waiting five to seven years to apply for clemency, it can still take years just to get scheduled for a hearing. After being denied, an applicant must wait two years to reapply. “A person could do the right thing for 5, 10, 15, 20 years and still get denied,” says Meade.
“I figured the best bet would be to go about this another way” — and so he threw himself into the movement to change the constitution.
“This shouldn’t be in the hands of politicians,” he said, “the criteria for determining who votes should not be so arbitrary.”
As for his own case, Meade says that rather than apply and wait years for a clemency hearing, he’s just holding out for 2018, when hopefully his amendment passes. Then he won’t have to grovel in front of anyone for his right to vote: “I’m gonna let the people of Florida give it to me.”