In Florida, Long Fight for Restored Vote Often Ends in Minutes

Virginia Atkins listens to Florida Gov. Rick Scott at state capitol building in Tallahassee during the hearing to get her voting rights back. (Photo courtesy WFSU-TV/The FLORIDA Channel)

This is the third installment of a four-part series on the effort overturn a 150-year old law in Florida that strips felons of their voting rights for life. A proposal that would dramatically change the law will appear on the state ballot in November.

(CN) – On a muggy 90-degree day in 2013, Virginia Atkins traveled to Florida’s state capitol building in Tallahassee to ask Gov. Rick Scott for her voting rights back.

Dressed conservatively in a black blouse, blue dress with a palm tree print and thick, horn-rimmed glasses, the 44-year-old waited nearly three hours before a clerk called her number: 36.

Atkins, accompanied by her adult daughter, approached the podium and timidly greeted the governor.

“It’s been 10 years since these charges,” she began, referring to a 2001 conviction for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. “I’ve served my time. I’m working. I’m a grandmamma. I’m going to be a grandmamma to twins.”

Atkins smiled and touched her daughter’s belly.

“I work every day,” she continued. “I’m active in the community. I stay out of trouble.”

She paused and bit her lower lip, seeming to swallow her tears.

Scott asked why she did it.

“I was protecting my daughter at the time,” Atkins said, explaining an incident involving a woman spitting on and slapping her 13-year-old daughter, Kashandra Nixon.

Nixon, now 32, told the governor she was a different person back then – bad temper, impulsive.

“I just feel like it’s all my fault, and if I could just take that from her and put it all on me, I will,” Nixon said.

After a couple questions about Atkins’ job with the Florida Department of Management Services, Scott put down his glasses.

“First, thanks for your work for the state,” the governor said. “At this point, I don’t feel comfortable giving your restoration of civil rights, but congratulations on your work and congratulations on your daughter.”

In less than four minutes, Atkins’ decade-long quest to have her voting rights restored was over.

For the last seven years, Scott has routinely denied restoring voting rights to former felons in hearings such as these. Of the 30,196 applications for voting rights restoration he’s received since taking office in January 2011, he’s approved only 3,005, or just under 10 percent, according to statistics compiled by the Florida Commission on Offender Review.

Scott has also rolled back the automatic restoration of rights for nonviolent crimes passed by his predecessor, Charlie Crist, and instituted a five- or seven-year waiting period (depending on the crime) for all former felons before they can formally apply for restoration of their civil rights.

Four times a year, the state board holds hearings for less than 100 applicants. The clemency board has no set standards on how to judge applicants’ worthiness for rights restoration and Scott has the final say. If denied, the petitioner must wait two years to re-apply.

At the current rate, the wait for a hearing is 16 years after the completion of a sentence, according to the Office of Executive Clemency.

In March 2017, frustrated by the cumbersome clemency process, seven former felons filed a class action lawsuit alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

Virginia Atkins was among them.

The former felons argued the clemency board’s decisions were inconsistent, vague and could have been influenced by political beliefs.

“Unlike the overwhelming majority of states, Florida simply has no law that tells ex-felons when their voting rights are restored,” Jon Sherman, senior counsel for Fair Elections Legal Network, said after filing the lawsuit on behalf of the ex-felons. “Instead, they must beg state officials to give them their rights back and this set-up violates our Constitution.”

The complaint listed numerous examples of inconsistent decisions during hearings.

The board regularly denied applicants due to moving violations while approving other applicants with lengthier traffic citation records, including speeding tickets, the complaint states.

During one December 2013 hearing, still available online, Scott questioned an applicant about illegally voting after his release from prison. When the man replied he voted for Scott, the governor chuckled and, seconds later, granted his voting rights.

At least five other petitioners who illegally voted were denied rights restoration, according to the complaint.

The clemency board, for its part, does not deny the process lacks clear standards.

At the start of a clemency hearing in 2016, Scott told attendees, “This is a board of clemency, okay? There is no law we’re following. The law has already been followed by the judges. So we get to make our decisions based on our own beliefs.”

In February, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker sided with Atkins and the other ex-felons, calling the clemency process arbitrary and unconstitutional.

In his 43-page ruling, Walker attacked Scott and the clemency board over their “unfettered discretion” to deny voting rights “for any reason.”

“Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony,” Walker wrote. “To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration.”

After striking down the state’s clemency procedures, Walker ordered the governor to revamp the process by the end of the April.

The state appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit, which issued a stay. In a 2-1 decision, the appellate panel hinted Scott is likely to win the case based on an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling giving governors exclusive rights over clemency.

The 11th Circuit plans to hear oral arguments on July 25 and a decision is not likely before voters head to the polls in November.

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