Florida's 'Disappeared Voters': Disfranchised by the GOP
Pastor Thomas Johnson of Gainesville is minister to House of Hope, a faith-based charity that guides ex-convicts from jail into working life, a program that has won high praise from the pastor's friend Governor Jeb Bush. Ten years ago, Johnson sold crack cocaine in the streets of New York, got caught, served his time, then discovered God and Florida--where, early last year, he attempted to register to vote. But local elections officials refused to accept his registration after he admitted to the decade-old felony conviction from New York. "It knocked me for a loop. It was horrendous," said Johnson of his rejection.
Beverly Hill, the elections supervisor of Alachua County, where Johnson attempted to register, said that she used to allow ex-felons like Johnson to vote. Under Governor Bush, that changed. "Recently, the [Governor's Office of Executive] Clemency people told us something different," she said. "They told us that they essentially can't vote."
Both Alachua's refusal to allow Johnson to vote and the governor's directive underlying that refusal are notable for their timing--coming after two court rulings that ordered the secretary of state and governor to recognize the civil rights of felons arriving from other states. In the first of these decisions, Schlenther v. Florida Department of State, issued in June 1998, Florida's Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that Florida could not require a man convicted in Connecticut twenty-five years earlier "to ask [Florida] to restore his civil rights. They were never lost here." Connecticut, like most states, automatically restores felons' civil rights at the end of their sentences, and therefore "he arrived as any other citizen, with full rights of citizenship."
The Schlenther decision was much the talk at a summer 1998 meeting of county elections officials in Orlando. So it was all the more surprising to Chuck Smith, systems administrator with Hillsborough County, that Harris's elections division chiefs exhorted local officials at the Orlando meeting to purge all out-of-state felons identified by DBT. Hillsborough was so concerned about this order, which appeared to fly in the face of the court edict, that the county's elections office demanded that the state put that position in writing--a request duly granted.
The Nation has obtained the text of the response to Hillsborough. The letter, from the Governor's Office of Executive Clemency, dated September 18, 2000, arrived only seven weeks before the presidential election. It orders the county to tell ex-felons trying to register that even if they entered Florida with civil rights restored by another state's law, they will still be "required to make application for restoration of civil rights in the state of Florida," that is, ask Governor Bush for clemency--exactly the requirement banned by the courts. The state's directive was all the more surprising in light of a second ruling, issued in December 1999 by another Florida court, in which a Florida district court judge expressed his ill-disguised exasperation with the governor's administration for ignoring the prior edict in Schlenther.
Voting rights attorneys who reviewed the cases for The Nation explained that the courts relied on both Florida statute and the "full faith and credit" clause of the US Constitution, which requires every state to accept the legal rulings of other states. "The court has been pretty clear on what the governor can't do," says Bruce Gear, assistant general counsel for the NAACP. And what Governor Bush can't do is demand that a citizen arriving in Florida ask him for clemency to restore a right to vote that the citizen already has.
Strangely enough, the governor's office does not disagree. While Harris, Bush and a half-dozen of their political appointees have not returned our calls, Tawanna Hayes, who processes the requests for clemency in the governor's office, states unequivocally that "we do not have the right to suspend or restore rights where those rights have been restored in another state." Hayes even keeps a copy of the two court decisions near her desk and quotes from them at length. Then why have the governor and secretary of state ordered these people purged from the rolls or barred from registering? Hayes directed us to Greg Munson, Governor Bush's assistant general counsel and clemency aide. Munson has not responded to our detailed request for an explanation.