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Florida took away his right to vote — but it took 30 years to find him

Neither the state nor a county can fully explain why it took decades to take away Clifton Sanders Jr.'s right to vote.
Clifton Sanders Jr. [Special to Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 17, 2018
Updated Sep. 17, 2018

Clifton Sanders Jr. was really looking forward to having his say in the 2018 election.

That is, until the state of Florida caught up with him and took away his right to vote, nearly 30 years too late.

Sanders, 69, is a retired minister living with a wife and young daughter in Orange Park, south of Jacksonville. He's a former pastor at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in downtown Jacksonville.

He received a letter in the mail in early May from the local elections office that would change his life. It said in part:

In Florida, convicted felons are permanently disenfranchised and can never vote again unless their civil rights are reinstated by the Board of Executive Clemency, made up of the governor and three elected Cabinet members.

Before those civil rights are revoked, state law requires that the felon be notified in writing and given an opportunity for a public hearing.

Sanders was indeed guilty of a felony, nearly 30 years ago.

He said he was working as a day laborer in Jacksonville and didn't know that a check he took as payment for labor was worthless. By his account, when he cashed that check he was charged with forgery — a felony.

Duval County court records show that State Attorney Ed Austin charged Sanders with forgery on Oct. 17, 1989, for cashing the check.

The amount: $283.15.

Records show Sanders pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to one year of probation. Nearly a year later, he was charged with violating probation, according to court records.

The years rolled by. Sanders, a registered Democrat, became an ordained minister, got a pastorship, and became eligible for Medicare and Social Security. He got married and he and his wife Carisa had a daughter.

He voted election after election and said no one ever told him he was not supposed to vote. He was a consistent voter for a decade in Jacksonville, where he lived before moving to Orange Park.

Sanders’ voting history in Jacksonville’s Duval County.

"Nobody appears to know why it happened, which is ridiculous. It doesn't make any sense," Sanders said. "It took them 30 years to get somebody who's black to not vote. Why did it take them so long?"

After being told he couldn't vote, Sanders asked for a hearing, which was held in August. Clay County said it had no choice but to take away his right to vote, which it did on August 15, nearly 30 years after the fact.

The letter states: "The determination has been made to remove your name from the Florida voter registration rolls because the documentation you provided did not disprove your felon status."

The letter Clifton Sanders Jr. received in August that took away his right to vote nearly 30 years later.

Since 2006, the primary responsibility for identifying potentially ineligible felons on the voter rolls has been the state's responsibility. But only a local supervisor of elections can remove a felon from the list of active voters, based on documentation only the state provides.

The state elections officer, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, said it has been aware of the Sanders case since 2010, but that Detzner's office could not positively identify Sanders as the same person who was guilty of forgery in 1989.

"The Department started reworking the potential felony match in August 2017 as part of an established practice to periodically review old potential matches that we were not previously able to validate due to insufficient documentation," said Detzner's spokeswoman, Sarah Revell. "Once we obtained the required documentation we were able to send a valid case to the supervisor of elections."

The facts of Sanders' forgery case are easily found on the Duval clerk of courts web site. There appears to be only one Clifton Sanders Jr. who was registered to vote in Florida who was born on Oct. 16, 1948.

Revell said a "valid case file" was sent to the Clay County elections office in May and Sanders was removed in August.

Because of Sanders' age, and that Florida has a mandatory five-year waiting period to apply for clemency and a backlog of more than 10,000 cases, it's not likely that Sanders will be able to vote again — unless voters approve Amendment 4 on the Nov. 6 ballot.

READ MORE: A summer of building support for giving felons right to vote

Passage of the amendment would restore the right to vote to about 1.4 million felons, not including those convicted of murder or sex offenses, without formal hearings.

Florida's system of restoring voting rights to felons was struck down as unconstitutional this year by a federal judge, but the system remains in effect while the state appeals Judge Mark Walker's decision.

READ MORE: Judge strikes down Florida's system of restoring felons' rights

Sanders' wife Carisa, who contacted the Times/Herald about the case, is furious at the turn of events. She said so in an email to the elections office.

"You are nothing but committing election fraud," Mrs. Sanders wrote Aug. 3, "trying to take people's voter registration away to keep people from voting for who they want so that you can keep Donald Trump in office and the Republicans in control."

But the decades of delays also raised questions with the county elections officer.

"I wondered the same thing — why this took so long to trickle through the process," said Chris Chambless, Clay County's supervisor of elections. "The county should be able to act immediately, and we go through many layers of review to make sure it's accurate."

"I freely admitted to Mr. Sanders that I empathized with him," Chambless told the Times/Herald. "It was a long period of time. But the statute doesn't provide me with any jurisprudence with a file once I receive it."