Romano: Once again, Florida shows up as a national punch line

In their first year in the Florida Cabinet, Attorney General Pam Bondi (left) and Gov. Rick Scott oversaw a 99 percent drop in the number of felons getting their voting rights restored. [Steve Cannon]
In their first year in the Florida Cabinet, Attorney General Pam Bondi (left) and Gov. Rick Scott oversaw a 99 percent drop in the number of felons getting their voting rights restored. [Steve Cannon]
Published March 29 2018

We can be a little goofy here in Florida, and that’s putting it politely.

We specialize in screwball crimes and cartoonish politicians, and normal people across the nation tune in whenever they want to feel better about themselves.

Comic relief is our niche, and a lot of us seem to embrace it.

But, I’ve got to tell you, the state’s stance on felon voting rights is something else entirely.

It doesn’t just put Florida out of step with the rest of America, it puts us on an entirely different planet. And that’s not an exaggeration. No state comes close to matching Florida’s cruelty on this subject.

"It’s shocking," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg. "And it’s embarrassing."

Only in Florida is this such a contentious issue. A district judge recently ordered Gov. Rick Scott to immediately fix the problems created by his administration, and a grass roots effort has amassed nearly 1 million signatures to permanently address the issue via a constitutional amendment.

And just so we’re clear, this isn’t a simple difference in philosophy or policy. It’s a fundamental issue the rest of America has figured out, and yet Florida has chosen to view it through a 19th century lens.

Think of it this way:

Less than 2.5 percent of the nation’s adults are banned from voting because of their felony records. That’s about one out of every 40 adults. In Florida, it’s more than 10 percent. Or one out of every 10.

Now that’s a math equation even I can understand. It means Florida’s rate of denying voting rights is more than 300 percent higher than the other 49 states. That seems excessive, don’t you think?

Here’s another way of looking at it:

Florida’s estimated 1.5 million disenfranchised voters, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, is more than Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee combined. When you’ve managed to out-Jim Crow the entire South, it’s time to do some soul searching.

Because, the truth is, these numbers impact black residents at a disproportionate rate, which is exactly what they were intended to do when passed more than a century ago.

Part of the problem is the way Florida’s laws are written. Felons permanently lose their voting rights and must apply to the state to have their rights restored after completing their entire sentence, including probation and fines. That makes Florida unusual, but not completely alone.

Three other states also require some type of pardon or appeal for a felon’s voting rights to be restored. The real difference has been in the way Scott has applied the law. One of his first acts as governor was to impose a five-year waiting period for felons to even apply to have their rights restored, along with adding all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to navigate.

But that was just a warmup for the main attack.

Scott and the Cabinet simply ignore most of the requests.

In Crist’s final year as governor, he oversaw the restoration of rights for 27,456 felons, according to the Brennan Center. In Scott’s first year, he restored voting rights for 52 felons. If this were the stock market, that would translate to a drop of 99.82 percent.

This has nothing to do with public safety. I don’t even think it’s driven by misplaced vengeance. It’s mostly a way to limit a voting group that Republicans assume will be left-leaning.

In the days before his election as governor in 2006, Crist, who was then a Republican, told a reporter that he would be in favor of restoring felons’ rights for certain criminal offenses.

"The next day, a lot of my friends from the Republican Party were calling my office," Crist said Wednesday. "They all said, ‘What are you doing? This is not what we want.’ And I told them the same thing I’ll tell you today: I believe in forgiveness and second chances. It’s the right thing to do."

It’s bad enough Florida is known as the mecca of jokes.

Do we also want to lead America in shame?

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