Editorial: Next, restore voting rights for ex-felons

Gov. Rick Scott would like Floridians to forget that he was for voter suppression and believe he now is against it. He can remove all doubt by eliminating the need for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore the voting rights of former felons who have served their time.

In dropping his federal voter-purge lawsuit recently, the governor deserves credit for recognizing the reality of his bankrupt position, if not the cost to taxpayers. He was appealing last April’s 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that his administration illegally tried to purge alleged noncitizens from the voter rolls. The court specifically cited a federal law prohibiting a political dirty trick: “systematic” removal of voters less than 90 days before a federal primary or general election.

“Our goal continues to be 100 percent participation by eligible voters and zero percent fraud,” Scott said in a statement, as if to usurp the position of the independent elections supervisors who actually safeguard those goals. “Florida voters deserve an election system they can be proud of.”

On the surface it all sounds like a repudiation of Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s “Project Integrity” that instead produced horror stories of legitimate voters erroneously purged. The governor, however, whistled past the latest self-inflicted damage to the state’s political reputation, and other costs including the $346,000 in legal fees sought by the voting rights advocates who correctly challenged his administration’s excesses.

Scott also would like Floridians to forget that much of this problem was addressed by former Gov. Charlie Crist’s 2007 executive order that restored the rights of non-violent former felons who had served their time. That momentum toward fairness was rescinded in 2011 by new Attorney General Pam Bondi and Scott. They decided that Floridians who have turned their lives around, are productively living and working and paying taxes, should have to wait five years to even ask to have their rights to vote or serve on a jury restored, then wait even longer in the decade-long, 20,000-case clemency pipeline.

The failure of African-Americans in particular to fully exercise the right to vote is one of the more appalling features of our politics. It pales in comparison to right-wing Republican campaigns to suppress ballots of those such as ex-felons, targeted for no other reason than being perceived as likely Democratic votes. The “Project Integrity” campaign continued what began before the first Africans were enslaved in America. Later, even free blacks were disenfranchised along with other minorities and women, the prohibition enforced by lynching, bombing, other acts of barbarism and Jim Crow laws.

Today, that campaign is couched in fine rhetoric, yet with the whole world watching, it remains a stain on our democracy. Scott can reverse that racist legacy. Rather than have his state remain one of four in which a felony conviction de facto permanently bars the right the vote, he can take Florida beyond even Crist’s steps by eliminating the need for the constitutional amendment that voting rights groups are working to get on the 2016 ballot.

For Scott, it would take the kind of sensitivity and courage to face his political right, that we haven’t yet seen. Meanwhile, members of the Florida Restoration Rights Coalition, the ACLU, NAACP, League of Women Voters and others seek to let voters decide whether felons can vote after completing their sentences. The groups are collecting the more than 683,000 valid voter signatures needed by February 2016 to get the amendment on that year’s ballot.

As encouraging as Scott’s decision to abandon the voter-purge appeal seems, there is room to doubt that he has seen the light as long as a statewide initiative is needed to ensure fairness for all eligible voters.

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