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Florida Attorney General Candidates Split On Restoring Felons' Voting Rights

Voting booth

Republicans running to replace term-limited Attorney General Pam Bondi would continue with the state’s legal approach to defending a controversial process for restoring felons’ voting rights.

But Democrats seeking the state Cabinet post oppose Bondi’s handling of the legal battle and support a proposed constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters in November, would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences.

The Republican primary for attorney general, pitting state House members Frank White of Pensacola and Jay Fant of Jacksonville and former Hillsborough County Judge Ashley Moody, has been more-contentious than the Democratic contest. But White and Moody made clear they agree on supporting an effort led by Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott to fend off a federal lawsuit that would require an overhaul of Florida’s process to restore felons’ voting rights.

White said Bondi, who has been a key supporter of policies that have made it harder to restore felons’ rights, should be “commended for defending our Constitution.”

“The Fourteenth Amendment gives the Governor broad discretion to grant and deny clemency,” White said. “Liberal activists and their lawyers are playing election-year politics with a process that is expressly defined in our Constitution.”

The lawsuit, filed last year by the Fair Elections Legal Network and the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC on behalf of nine felons, contends the state’s vote-restoration system is unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Under the current process, felons must wait five or seven years after their sentences are complete to apply to have rights restored. After applications are filed, the process can take years to complete.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ordered Scott, Bondi and the two other members of the Cabinet —  Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — who serve as the clemency board, to overhaul Florida’s process of restoring felons’ voting rights. But the state has appealed the case, and a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked an order by Walker that would have required the state to quickly change the process last month.

In supporting Bondi, Moody echoed White, calling the lawsuit “another example of activists’ inappropriately attempting to use our judicial system to overturn decisions by our elected officials.”

“If one believes that a different system should be utilized, the answer is not to claim the current system is unconstitutional,” Moody said. “The answer is to discuss the issue in the elections and let the voters decide.”

Fant, Moody and White oppose the proposed constitutional amendment, which will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 4.

"Those who commit serious crimes must be punished, and that means losing rights as a citizen in Florida," Fant said. "Our crime rate is at a 30-year low because we have tough laws. Convicted felons can come to a clemency meeting and make their case to restore their rights to vote. I do not, and will not, support the amendment to the Constitution which allows for the immediate restoration of felon rights.”

Moody took a similar stance.

“I cannot in good conscience support Amendment 4 as it will allow violent offenders the automatic restoration of rights without a case-by-case determination of when restoration is appropriate," she said. "Although I do believe we should consider a less cumbersome procedure for restoration of rights for non-violent felons.”

A political committee known as Floridians for a Fair Democracy collected enough petitions to put the proposed amendment on the ballot. If approved, it would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, completed parole and paid restitution. Murderers and sex offenders would be excluded.

The Democratic candidates for attorney general, state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa and Hillsborough County attorney Ryan Torrens, support the proposed constitutional amendment and agree with critics of the current process, who argue Scott and the Cabinet use clemency in a discriminatory manner.

Torrens said his intention, if elected, would be to seek withdrawal of the state’s appeal in the vote-restoration case.

“I believe that our citizens who have paid their debt to society should be able to participate in our democracy again by exercising the right to vote,” Torrens said.

Shaw’s campaign said the state should not continue to waste taxpayer dollars defending a flawed and discriminatory system.

“Our society is one that believes in second chances, and a single mistake should not define an individual for the rest of their life,” Shaw’s campaign said.

Bondi and Scott led efforts to tighten the rights-restoration process after taking office in 2011.

Since the changes went into effect, Scott — whose support is required for any type of clemency to be granted— and the board have restored the rights of 3,005 of the more than 30,000 convicted felons who’ve applied, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. There’s a backlog of more than 10,000 pending applications, according to the commission.

In contrast, more than 155,000 ex-felons had their right to vote automatically restored during the four years of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s tenure, according to court documents.