Voters will decide in November whether Florida should join 37 other states that allow people convicted of felonies to vote after they have served their sentences, an issue that the Lakeland City Commission decided by a 5-to-2 vote Monday not to take a stand on.
Following Commissioner Scott Franklin’s lead, several commissioners said they were not taking a stand against the issue itself but against the concept of the City Commission advising residents how to vote on a constitutional amendment.
Commissioner Stephanie Madden thanked Commissioner Philip Walker for advocating for the amendment and Commissioner Justin Troller for providing educational points about the inefficiency of the Florida Board of Clemency, but said she was reluctant to support one constitutional amendment when there are other amendments on the ballot that also impact local residents.
“At the end of the day, I hope we don’t remember the vote and feel like it is a loss” but remember the points raised by Walker and Troller “that show me how to vote and show my family and friends how to vote and provide education for everyone watching this meeting and for the media to share information.”
State laws vary but currently Florida is among four states that requires clemency before voting rights are restored. The amendment, which was placed on the ballot after more than 750,000 voters signed a petition requesting it, requires 60 percent approval.
The wording on the ballot is simple. It states that voting rights taken away upon the conviction of a felony “shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation” but excludes automatic restoration for those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. (View the ballot language, the full text of the amendment and background info.)
Throughout a lengthy discussion during an agenda study meeting on Friday and another discussion at Monday’s commission meeting, commissioners managed to skirt the amendment’s emotionally charged racial issues.
The Florida Department of Corrections’ annual report for 2016-2017 lists 47.4 percent of the state’s prison population as black, 39.7 percent white and 12.4 percent Hispanic. That does not align with the population at large, which is 17.5 percent black, 57.6 percent white and 24.9 percent Hispanic, according to statistics from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.
Troller did not use the words racism or prejudice, but during the informal discussion on Friday said, “Folks have served their time. I think it is far. How long do we keep them down. Maybe it is because they are of a particular race; I don’t know. The statistics speak for themselves. Let’s call it what it is.”
In early September, Walker had asked his fellow commissioners’ support of a resolution that the Florida League of Cities Black Caucus designed with help from attorneys with the league. After commissioners raised objections about wording they though was editorializing, City Attorney Tim McCausland prepared a resolution with more measured wording.
The proposed resolution noted that 1.6 million ex-felons in the state are eligible to seek restoration of voting rights, creating a backlog, and noted that of 155,000 people who completed sentences from 2012 through October 2017, only 2,807 people had their right to vote restored.
The proposed resolution also recognized that “there is a direct positive correlation between civil rights restoration and felon availability to apply for various state occupational licenses, which will reduce unemployment and poverty levels and increase civic participation.”
During Monday’s meeting, Troller focused his remarks on the Board of Clemency, which he described as ineffective and inefficient and a waste of taxpayer money.
“When you have a Clemency Board of four individuals that hears 300 cases a year of 6,000 appeals, that is a 5 percent rate of hearing cases,” Troller said, noting there is a perpetual backlog of 10,000 cases.
He said the current situation puts people who have served their time, paid their debt to society, “in a never-ending bureaucratic revolving door or permanent holding pattern that is in reality ineffective government.”
Troller said that the executive office of the Clemency Board posts a monthly list of accomplishments that includes such things as having a party for the newsletter committee, disposing of 18 boxes of paper books and 15 boxes of posters, submitting a report and responding to a public records request.
“I ask my colleagues to support this amendment, not to be on the right or left but to speak up for fairness,” Troller said. “We all talk about transparency and voter participation.” but the current situation “I think hinders some voters in our community.”
Walker said, “I believe this deals with quality-of-life issues, just like we are dealing with homelessness as a quality-of-life issue. This has an impact on certain parts of the city, especially the core area, that deals with unemployment, unstable families and poverty. People who have paid their debt to society should be given their civil rights to vote restored to them.”
Commissioner Bill Read said that he does not endorse candidates and tries not to endorse causes so “regardless of how I may vote on this issue” I cannot support making an endorsement of the resolution.” He said his research shows that Amendment 4 has a 71 percent approval rating, according to polls.
After joining Franklin, Madden, Read and Commissioner Michael Dunn in rejecting the resolution, Mayor Bill Mutz said while he did not think it is the commission’s role to take stands on ballot issues, “my position is I would encourage people to vote yes.”
ALSO: The Ledger talks with a frustrated business owner who still can’t vote years after completing his sentence and probation because of the slow process.