TAMPA — U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor wants Gov. Rick Scott to make it easier for felons to have their voting rights restored after they have paid their to debt to society.
The Democratic congresswoman spoke Monday about the issue, which promises to be a focal point of the 2014 governor's race that's pitting Scott, a Republican, against former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat.
"Florida is the worst state in the country when it comes to disenfranchisement of voters," Castor said. "I think this is a fundamental civil rights issue of our time."
At a news conference, Castor called on Scott and the Cabinet to address the issue at the next meeting of the state Clemency Board, scheduled for March 19.
Monday's event was held at the corner of Harrison Street and Orange Avenue in downtown Tampa, where a mural depicting local civil rights leaders served as a backdrop. Joining Castor were Michael Pheneger, president of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Carolyn Hepburn Collins, president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP.
"At the rate that Gov. Scott and the Cabinet are moving, we won't be alive by the time these people have their rights restored," Pheneger said, adding that the issue, in his view, was one of morals. "My reading of the New Testament is that God tells us to forgive people, and this is not forgiveness."
In 2007, Crist as governor made it possible for felons who were convicted of less serious crimes to regain their rights without having to go through a hearing. The process remained more stringent for those convicted of murder and other serious offenses, with a hearing and investigation still required.
Crist's changes enabled 150,000 restorations, though a backlog of 100,000 remained when he left office.
In 2011, state Attorney General Pam Bondi argued that the restoration process was too easy. Scott and the Cabinet scrapped the process, requiring a minimum five-year waiting period, significantly reducing the number of restorations.
Some other states, Castor said, restore rights to felons automatically once their debts to society — prison time and restitution — have been paid.
The issue is national in scope, having been the subject of a speech that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave last week at Georgetown University. The Democrat called for a repeal of laws that prohibit felons from voting, likening such laws to policies in the post-Civil War South, which were designed to prevent blacks from participating in society.
An estimated 6 million felons nationwide are eligible to have their voting rights restored, with about a quarter of those in Florida, according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Asked whether Monday's news conference addressing the issue was a purely political ploy, given that the Clemency Board is unlikely to reverse its earlier decision, Pheneger pointed back at Scott.
"The whole idea that you can disenfranchise a group of people who might not vote for you is a political act," Pheneger said. "As the only registered Republican standing here, I can tell you it's absolutely political."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.