Editorial: Amendment 4 transcends lines

Published Dec. 17, 2018

Amendment 4, which would provide automatic restoration of voting rights for most Florida felons who have served their sentences, has the benefit of being morally just and fiscally smart. Recently it gained another asset: broader ideological appeal. After liberal comedian John Oliver aired a segment excoriating Florida's clemency system and appealing for voters' support for the amendment, a Koch Brothers-backed group endorsed it for offering "real second chances for returning citizens." That's an unusual alliance that indicates there's nothing partisan about Amendment 4, and Floridians of all political stripes should get behind it.

On the ballot Nov. 6, Amendment 4 would affirm in the Florida Constitution that felons who have served their sentences, completed probation and paid restitution will regain their right to vote automatically. It excludes people convicted of felony sex crimes and murder, who would still have to go through the clemency process. The amendment reached the ballot through a grass-roots citizen drive that collected more than 1 million signatures.

It's necessary because under Gov. Rick Scott, the clemency process has been distorted into a hopeless, demeaning waiting game. When Scott took office in 2011, the state Cabinet imposed a 5-year wait to be considered for clemency and added onerous requirements, such as making an in-person appeal before Scott and the Cabinet, who sit as the Clemency Board four times a year in Tallahassee. Anyone who clears those hurdles still has no guarantee. Scott and the other board members often ask irrelevant, intrusive questions of the applicants, such as how often they go to church, and decide based on no discernible set of standards whether to grant people their basic rights.

That's the antithesis of a fair and just system. And it's broken. Thousands of Floridians are stuck in the backlog of cases that have piled up since Scott turned back the clock. His predecessor, Charlie Crist, instituted a streamlined clemency process in 2007 that restored voting rights for more than 155,000 felons in four years. In nearly eight years under Scott, less than 5,000 cases have been approved.

On his HBO show "Last Week Tonight," Oliver declared Florida the "disenfranchisement capital of America" because it excludes more of its citizens than any other state from voting — some 1.5 million. The segment showed a clip of Scott declaring in a clemency hearing that "there's absolutely no standards so we can make any decisions we want." Oliver, in his characteristic over-the-top, profane style, noted how jarring it was to hear Scott actually admit to the arbitrary unfairness of the process. Freedom Partners, part of Charles and David Koch's political network that backs conservative and libertarian causes, had a more sober take on felon rights in Florida. The group said in a statement, "We believe that when individuals have served their sentences and paid their debts to society as ordered by a judge, they should be eligible to vote. ... If we want people returning to society to be productive, law-abiding citizens, we need to treat them like full-fledged citizens."

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Amendment 4 needs 60 percent voter approval to pass, and opinion polls have shown a large swath of the electorate remains undecided about it. Perhaps the fact that a far-left comedian who appeals to millennials and a group representing conservative business interests can solidify agreement that the way Florida deals with felons' rights is absurd and unjust. Amendment 4 would fix it for good.