It’s been over a year since five million people marched to the polls to support Amendment 4. Voters on both sides of the aisle came together to help former felons who served their sentences regain their right to vote. The people spoke together decisively, and Amendment 4 won with over 64 percent in favor.
But the voice of the people continues to be silenced. A federal judge recently ruled that voters can’t be stopped from voting because they’re too poor to pay financial obligations resulting from their conviction, citing constitutional concerns with lawmakers’ Amendment 4 legislation. Now, Gov. Ron DeSantis is appealing that ruling.
But here’s a fact: while Amendment 4 is tied up in litigation, the amendment’s goal can be accomplished – and it can be done right now. Florida already has a process to restore voting rights to those who have served their sentences. The Board of Executive Clemency, composed of the Cabinet members, has the authority to restore civil rights to prior offenders. The previous administration severely restricted that process by changing the rules in 2011, giving unfettered discretion to deny clemency for any reason, and mandating that all applicants wait five or more years before even starting the process. If an applicant finally did get a hearing, they get just five minutes to speak. Five years for five minutes — that’s our current system.
Under that clemency system, which a judge called “crushingly restrictive” and “arbitrary and discriminatory,” only 3,368 people had their rights restored. By contrast, under my administration, we restored rights for over 150,000 deserving Floridians. My predecessor, Jeb Bush, oversaw 76,000 people getting their rights restored. That’s a far cry from the 24 people have had their rights restored this year. Twenty-four. We can return to a fairer clemency process and restore rights to those who should have been helped by Amendment 4. The truth is, clemency is an executive function. Over two months ago, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried sent a letter to her fellow Clemency Board colleagues, calling for the adoption of new clemency rules. Her letter, just like the will of the voters on Amendment 4, has been ignored.
Under my administration’s clemency rules, civil rights were automatically restored to non-violent ex-felons who had served their time, paid restitution to victims, and had no further pending criminal charges. Fried has called for returning to those rules as a model, as a floor, and as an improvement to the current disenfranchisement scheme. Freedom is fundamental to our nation – but it’s constantly shifting, shaped by the powers of government.
Whether or not they voted for Amendment 4, it’s the duty of Florida’s constitutional officers to uphold the will of the people. Right now, more than 10,000 applicants continue waiting for their voice to be heard and their rights to be restored.
Change is needed now, justice delayed is justice denied. This can no longer be about politics or partisanship. It’s about humanity, decency, and the Golden Rule: do unto others as we’d have done unto us. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Clemency Board should follow Nikki Fried’s lead, change the rules, and restore the rights of their fellow Floridians.
U.S. Representative Charlie Crist, a Democrat, represents Florida’s 13th Congressional District. He previously served as the 44th Governor of Florida.