Florida felon voting rights: Who got theirs back under Scott?

The governor restored rights to the lowest percentage of blacks, highest percentage of Republicans in 50 years, The Post found.

Howard Lee Lockett brought his wife and 9-year-old son to the state Capitol last month with a story and a hope: that Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet would restore his right to vote, lost after he was found guilty of aggravated battery as a 17-year-old.

In the 23 years since that crime, he graduated from college, married and became a director at a technology company. Despite that, Lockett’s odds of being allowed to vote were as long as the road he took from his St. Petersburg home to Tallahassee.

That’s because Scott’s system of restoring voting rights has for years discriminated against black felons, boosting his own political prospects and those of other Republicans throughout the state, a Palm Beach Post analysis has found.

The Post’s findings offer an unprecedented look at who got their rights back under Scott and go beyond the arguments made in an ongoing federal lawsuit that alleges Florida’s system is arbitrary.

Independently confirming the identities, race and political affiliations of about half of those who had their rights restored under Scott — the governor withheld information that would have allowed for a complete examination — The Post found:

During his nearly eight years as governor, Scott restored the voting rights of twice as many whites as blacks and three times as many white men as black men. Scott restored rights to a higher percentage of Republicans and a lower percentage of Democrats than any of his predecessors since 1971. Blacks accounted for 27 percent of those who had their voting rights restored despite the fact that 43 percent of those released from state prisons over the past two decades were black. Black men accounted for 16 percent of voting restorations even though 38 percent of released prisoners were black men. Blacks accounted for a lower percentage of restorations under Scott than under any of his predecessors, Republican or Democrat, going back at least half a century.

Felons, many of them minorities, tend to vote for Democrats, studies have found. Limiting the number of felons who can vote almost certainly tips the scale in favor of Republicans in a state known for razor-thin victory margins.

‘Elements of racism’

It isn’t surprising that Scott’s system produces racially disparate results given that he expanded on a post-Civil War law aimed at suppressing black voting, said Darryl Paulson, a retired professor from the University of South Florida and an expert on race and Florida’s voting history.

“It’s part of a pattern or practice of discrimination,” Paulson said. “In these disenfranchisement laws, you still have those elements of racism involved, and you still have those political considerations involved.”

Shortly after taking office in 2011, Scott changed the system to make it the most restrictive since 1976.

Where the process was once nearly automatic for most in Florida, felons must now wait five to seven years after completing any prison sentence and probation before they even can apply to get their voting rights back. Their applications are reviewed individually by an investigator, forcing some to wait as long as a decade and creating a backlog of more than 10,000.

The Sunshine State is one of three, along with Kentucky and Iowa, that permanently bars felons from voting unless they act to get those rights restored. Most other states have gone the other way, lifting restrictions on felon voting rights.

While the president and governors have broad power to grant pardons or other forms of clemency, Scott’s use of that authority has raised the ire of critics.

In Florida, Scott has the final say on which felons can vote. Though the three Cabinet members get to vote, felons cannot regain their rights without Scott’s approval.

The restrictions do not place roadblocks to employment. Scott signed legislation in 2011 uncoupling employment licensing and voting rights restoration. Felons don’t have to go to the clemency board to work in their chosen field.

Holding voting rights at bay, however, has struck many as cruel, paternalistic — and politically motivated.

Scott makes clear to those before him at quarterly clemency hearings in Tallahassee that they’re at his “mercy” and his decision is not based on any standards or rules.

During the meetings, the four board members often drill applicants with highly personal questions. One man had to discuss unproven accusations of sex with his teenage cousin. Another man was asked how many mothers gave birth to his six children. Many answer to whether they go to church regularly.

Felons don’t have to attend these often-emotional and wrenching meetings, but many who fail to show up find their applications rejected by Scott.

The 2011 restrictions slowed to a trickle the number of people who have had their rights restored. Scott granted 3,088 through June, which is tens of thousands fewer than each of his five predecessors.

“I guess you could liken it to sitting in your car cruising down the highway, then you hit a traffic jam,” said Richard Greenberg, a Tallahassee attorney who for more than 20 years has represented felons seeking to have their rights restored. “This has been the most trying process by far.”

Florida draws national ridicule

Scott’s office says the governor doesn’t keep a list of people whose applications he has rejected. But based on numbers his office provided, Scott has rejected more than 16,000. It’s not clear what happened to the reported 100,000 he inherited from former Gov. Charlie Crist though it’s likely many did not meet the new standards.

Florida’s process — and the potential for it to change — has drawn national attention. A constitutional amendment that would overturn the lifetime ban for most felons will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. It could add more than 1 million voters in a state that’s critical to national elections.

Along with the political attention has come national ridicule from the likes of “Saturday Night Live” and comedian John Oliver, who mocked the state as “the disenfranchisement capital of America.”

Until now, details of racial disparities in Florida’s clemency system have gone largely unreported, in part, because state law does not require the same public access to clemency records as it does to most state documents. Instead, the governor decides what information can be released.

When The Post requested the names and dates of birth of those granted voting restoration under Scott, the governor released only the names. He “respectfully declined” to furnish birth dates, a key identifier. Undeterred, The Post over four months independently confirmed the identities and race of 56 percent of those who got their voting rights back under Scott.

Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she believes Scott’s refusal to release more information is an effort to avoid scrutiny.

“What you don’t want is transparency on the arbitrary, racially discriminatory process you’ve set up to keep yourself in power,” she said. “That’s what you don’t want.”

The governor, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, declined to speak with Post reporters. A spokeswoman for his office said Scott is focused more on victims of crime than the felons who apply to have their voting rights restored.

“Demographics are not a factor in this process,” Ashley Cook wrote in an email. “Saying otherwise is completely ignoring the facts of how the clemency process works and is irresponsible. The facts don’t align to your narrative.”

Former Republican Gov. Crist, who granted 50 times as many voting restorations as Scott in half as much time, said Scott knowingly altered the system for his own his benefit.

“It think it’s unfair,” said Crist, now a Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg. “I think it’s indefensible, and I think it’s intentional. Part of what my former party spends time on is voter suppression. And this is part of it.”

LOCKED OUT: The politics

A red advantage in a purple state

In the Sunshine State, with its tight electoral margins, the ban on felon voting has been a boon to Republicans.

The GOP has held the governor’s office and both chambers of the state Legislature for 20 years despite the fact that the state has more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Scott said politics plays no role in his clemency decisions.

“I have never and will never ask an applicant their political views,” he said at a September hearing. “That sort of information has absolutely no bearing on my decisions in these clemency cases.”

And yet, Scott granted rights to a higher percentage of Republicans and a lower percentage of Democrats than any governor since 1971, The Post found.

Of those whose identities were confirmed by The Post, 42 percent regaining voting rights under Scott were Democrats, whereas 35 percent were Republicans.

The other governors barely reached 25 percent Republicans. Likewise, nearly 60 percent of those getting rights from the other governors registered as Democrats.

A majority of the Democrats were black, The Post found. Only nine of the 500 Republicans identified by The Post were black.

In Florida and elsewhere, minorities are overrepresented in state prisons.

Felons tend to vote for Democrats and felon disenfranchisement “has provided a small but very clear advantage to Republican candidates in every presidential and senatorial election from 1972 to 2000,” a 2002 study by Professors Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza of New York University found.

About 1.5 million Floridians are barred from voting because of felony convictions, the largest number in the country, NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice reported.

“If you free up even 1 million people to vote, that can be game-changing in Florida,” Crist said. “And in a purple state like Florida, if you can change the result here, you can change who becomes president.”

George W. Bush famously defeated Al Gore here by 537 votes in 2000, a win that propelled him to the presidency.

Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida by about 113,000 votes in 2016.

And Scott won both of his races for governor by fewer than 65,000 votes.

Dan McLaughlin, a campaign adviser to Scott’s opponent, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, said the governor has “used his office to try to keep people he thinks would oppose him from voting. Regarding restoration of voting rights, Sen. Nelson believes if non-violent offenders have paid their debt to society, they should be able to vote.”

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican Cabinet member who supported Scott in making it harder for felons to regain their voting rights, said the difficulty in getting those rights back should be tied to the severity of the felon’s crime.

“When you have someone who is a child molester, they ought to have to be in front of us and explain,” Putnam said, although now the board requires people with far less severe felonies to appear.

Putnam, who is term-limited and lost the 2018 Republican nomination for governor, now favors lifting some of those restrictions.

“I believe that old, non-violent drug-type offenses ought to have an easier path,” he said.

LOCKED OUT: The numbers

Scott’s rate of blacks lowest of 6 governors

With Scott’s restrictions in place, the governor and Cabinet granted rights to a lower percentage of blacks than any of his six predecessors, The Post’s analysis shows.

Under Scott, blacks accounted for 27 percent of restorations. Crist and Jeb Bush, both Republican governors, had 44 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

Democrat Lawton Chiles, who took office in 1991, restored rights to the next lowest percentage of blacks — 29 percent. Chiles tightened restrictions amid a statewide prison crowding crisis. The state released scores of prisoners early, and Chiles responded by requiring all released felons to apply for rights restoration and some to appear at hearings.

Scott’s system is the most restrictive since 1976, when former Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew allowed felons to automatically regain their rights after completing their sentences.

Scott restored rights to a higher percentage of whites than any of those governors, except for Chiles.

The Post used data released by the state in 2013 to track clemencies granted by other governors. To identify racial characteristics, the newspaper compared the data to the state’s list of registered voters.

LOCKED OUT: The history

Laws rooted in racial animus

Felons have been barred from voting in Florida since its first constitution in 1838.

The state stepped up its disenfranchisement efforts in May 1868, approving a new state constitution that expanded the list of felonies.

Black Americans were on the verge of having their citizenship assured through the 14th Amendment, which Florida had to accept to be readmitted to the Union.

The state’s provisions didn’t specifically name blacks as targets, but neither did poll taxes, literacy tests or other forms of intimidation frequently directed at blacks to keep them from voting.

Voting history expert Paulson compared felon disenfranchisement to the poll tax, a fee imposed on would-be voters. Florida was the first state to adopt a poll tax, which was waived for men whose grandfathers had voted in previous elections, a claim no black man could make.

The tax was not overtly discriminatory, keeping it from running afoul of the 15th Amendment, which says the right to vote cannot be denied based on race. But the poll tax had discriminatory intent, Paulson said.

In 2000, a lawsuit claimed the state’s system was discriminatory. A three-judge appeals panel had acknowledged that the system was rooted in historic “racial animus.”

But in dismissing the suit, the full court said plaintiffs failed to prove both that the system was discriminatory and that the state intended to discriminate.

Still, Aden of the LDF said the goal of Florida’s felon disenfranchisement system is clear.

“It is a new form of an old tactic — keeping certain people from voting,” she said. “That clearly has a racial impact. Maybe you don’t have a poll tax, but you try something new.”

Aden noted that Maine and Vermont, whose populations are nearly all white, both allow felons to vote while in prison.

“What’s the difference?” Aden asked. “The difference is demography.”

Scott’s spokeswoman disputes the notion that the governor is playing politics with the clemency system.

“He is focused on the victims of crimes, not the criminals who commit them,” Cook wrote in an email. “To suggest that the governor and Cabinet’s decisions are based on anything otherwise is absolutely absurd.”

She later added: “The clemency process is not about politics to the governor. It’s in Florida’s Constitution and has been in place under multiple administrations.”

Paulson, who describes himself as a lifelong conservative, decried what he called politically motivated disenfranchisement in Florida.

“Under ideal circumstances, both political parties, Republicans and Democrats, ought to be able to persuade voters that the positions that they are supporting are in the best interest of the voters,” Paulson said. “If they can’t convince voters of that, then they don’t deserve to win elections. Neither political party should be able to win an election based on political maneuvering.”

LOCKED OUT: The hearings

Throwing themselves on Scott’s mercy

Cabinet Room LL-03 was full by the time Scott gaveled the clemency hearing to order last month.

Comedian Oliver’s skit two days earlier had drawn attention from local and national media. TV camera operators jockeyed for space on the edges of the hearing room. Reporters positioned themselves outside to interview felons after board members had rendered their judgment.

Lockett sat toward the front, with a clear view of Scott, Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — the four white people on the dais who would determine whether he got his voting rights restored.

Showing up didn’t necessarily increase Lockett’s chances.

Among those who appeared in person, three times as many whites as blacks had their rights restored, The Post analysis found.

Lockett watched others before him recount their crimes and beg for forgiveness.

Then comes the personal questions, sometimes to an applicant’s spouse, sometimes to the children. Do you have a supportive spouse? Do you take medication for your mental illness? What do your children think of you being here? When was the last time you did drugs?

Applicants frequently weep at the podium, where a box of tissues marked “clemency mtg” is placed within reach.

Scott uses a soft tone even as he asks the most searing questions. Sometimes, he pauses the hearing to hug an applicant or have his photo taken with a family.

Despite Scott’s demeanor, felons say they are nevertheless humiliated.

Detravious Smith, a 39-year-old truck driver from Orlando, was battered with personal questions during his 17-minute hearing in June 2017.

He served four months in prison in 2000 for grand theft auto when he was 17. He also was charged with possession of marijuana, but that charge was dropped.

Scott told him to stop smoking pot.

“You can’t smoke the marijuana,” the governor told Smith. “Go change the law, if you want to go change the law.”

Smith, who said he had not used marijuana since 2002, nodded.

In that moment, he thought nothing of the brief exchange. But days later, he grew irked by the comment.

“You can’t even be political and make changes if you don’t have your rights,” Smith said. “You can’t run for office. You can’t even vote. We pay taxes, but if we don’t have our rights, we’re silenced.”

‘I did the thing. I did that’

Lockett wanted his voice back, too.

He said he hoped to vote in local elections, particularly for the school board that oversees the education of his son.

Two and a half hours into his Sept. 11 hearing, after 35 other cases had been decided, Lockett strode to the podium to face Scott and the Cabinet.

His wife of 16 years, Kelinda, a middle school vice principal, was at his side. So, too, was their son, Joshua.

Clemency staff had recommended that Lockett’s application be denied. They and the clemency board knew that, as a 17-year old, Lockett shot someone. They knew, too, that he was sentenced to probation for the crime.

Lockett drove from St. Petersburg to Tallahassee so they could know the man that troubled boy became.

“I came here with a speech prepared,” Lockett said. “I had this long list of reasons I was going to tell you. But I realized my son is here, and that’s not what I tell him. This is not what I tell him. I tell him excuses don’t matter. I did the thing. I did that.”

Lockett said his employer had told him many times that his career would advance no further unless he got a pardon.

“I never get past this hump,” Lockett told Scott and the Cabinet. “I am stuck.”

Scott then addressed Lockett’s wife and son.

“You look smart,” the governor told Joshua.

Lockett’s wife spoke up on behalf of her husband, saying he is a good role model not only for their child but for others in their community.

Bondi chastised Lockett for his past crime.

“There is no excuse for what you did,” she said. “There’s no excuse.”

But she acknowledged the distance Lockett had traveled from troubled youth to husband, father and IT director.

“You’ve really done an incredible job,” Bondi said.

Under the glare of the media spotlight, Scott and the Cabinet voted to pardon Lockett’s crime and restore his voting rights, though they forbid him from owning a gun.

“I don’t need that,” Lockett said.

Afterward, he hugged his wife and son.

Both Lockett and Smith, a father of two, said their quest to get their voting rights restored was less about them and more about their children.

“I did it for my daughters,” Smith said. “I did it because it’s hard to talk to them about our country, about our situation, about being black citizens, without doing my part and being involved.”

Smith, a Democrat, said a few moments in his life stand out as his best memories. The first two were when his daughters were born in 1999 and 2006. The third was on Aug. 28 — the first time he ever voted.

“I can’t describe it,” Smith said. “It was amazing. I walked out of the polling place feeling like this was one of the most important things to me as a black man who changed his life. Not everyone is as passionate as me. But for me, I felt like I was moving forward.”

LOCKED OUT: No standards

Boca developer gets his rights back

While Lockett and Smith beat the odds in getting their voting rights restored, others haven’t been as fortunate.

Nothing felons can say or do guarantees they’ll get their voting rights back.

Scott keeps secret any information about who or how many apply for voting rights restoration, making it impossible to determine what percentage of applicants are successful.

Some felons with 30-year-old crimes are denied; some whose violations are far more recent are successful.

Scott makes clear that the clemency process has no rules, no standards.

“There’s no law we’re following,” the governor said at the beginning of a 2016 clemency hearing. “The law has already been followed by the judges. So we get to make our decision based on our own beliefs.”

But a system in which the governor is all-powerful leaves open the possibility of favoritism.

Developer James Batmasian, a Republican donor, offered in 2014 to host a fund-raiser for Scott at his Boca Raton home.

Once word got out that Batmasian was a felon — he served eight months in federal prison in 2009 for payroll tax evasion — Scott canceled his appearance.

In 2017, Scott restored Batmasian’s voting rights without a hearing.

Batmasian, who has a framed photo of himself, his wife, Marta, and Scott hanging in the lobby of his Boca Raton property management firm, said he didn’t speak with Scott about his application.

Scott’s office said the governor does not consult privately with applicants before granting clemency.

2 cases of illegal voting, 2 different results

What kills some applications might not kill others.

At a 2017 clemency hearing, Scott scolded a Miami man for voting illegally eight times. The man told Scott that he’d gotten his voter registration card in the mail after attending an event with Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.

Scott told the 48-year-old black man that he’d take the case under advisement, a phrase that often indicates rejection. The man got his rejection letter a week later.

“On the drive home, I kept thinking, ‘Why the hell did I mention Rep. Wilson?’ ” he said. “As soon as (Scott) knew I was a Democrat, I felt like I lost it.”

The man asked not to be identified because many of his colleagues don’t know about his 20-year-old conviction for firing a weapon in his own apartment to scare off invaders. He plans to apply again after the mandatory two-year waiting period.

A year after the Miami man’s hearing, the clemency board considered the application of a white Tampa man, Scott Robert Friedman, who voted illegally after his 1990 conviction for smuggling 500 pounds of marijuana into Collier County.

“Why did you vote illegally 12 times?” Putnam asked him.

“I shouldn’t answer ’cause I thought y’all might need my vote,” Friedman said. “I shouldn’t answer that?”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Putnam said.

“I didn’t know I was voting illegally,” Friedman said then.

Scott and the Cabinet restored Friedman’s voting rights.

Afterward, Friedman joked about having voted illegally.

“We elect enough nutcases,” he said. “Why can’t the nutcases vote?”

Scott says it keeps people from committing more crimes

A federal judge in February found the clemency board’s decision-making arbitrary, “crushingly restrictive,” and unconstitutional.

“A state cannot re-enfranchise only those felons who are more than six-feet-tall, who are blue-eyed, who were born in August, who root for the Florida Gators, or who call heads during a coin flip,” Judge Mark Walker wrote in an opinion that ordered Scott and the Cabinet to change the system.

But Scott appealed. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the state to continue the system until the lawsuit, Hand vs. Scott, is decided by the full appeals court.

Jim Exline, a West Palm Beach city commissioner forced to resign after he was charged with income tax fraud, said he became a plaintiff in the lawsuit specifically because the governor’s restrictions favor the GOP.

“I considered it cheating,” said Exline, who spent 10 months in federal prison in 2007. “He’s using his position on the clemency board to stop certain people from voting. Even being a Republican, I think all elections should be fair and candidates should not have the ability to cheat.”

In defending his changes to the system, a Scott administration report notes that, over six years, only 1 percent of felons who had their rights restored under Scott went on to commit other crimes.

That recidivism rate is based on more than 5,000 restorations, a figure far higher than the 3,100 names Scott’s administration provided to The Post.

Scott’s efforts to reduce recidivism have not been entirely successful.

In one instance, a man sat in jail while Scott and the Cabinet restored his voting rights.

Umberto Cisneros was charged in Palm Beach County with sexual battery and molestation of a girl between the age of 12 and 15 when his rights were restored in March 2013. Cisneros was later convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In 2011, a commission study found the two-year recidivism rate under Crist was 11.1 percent.

Crist said there’s a reason his rate might be higher than Scott’s.

“When you have 155,000 people in my pool and less than 4,000 in yours, of course that’s going to be the case,” Crist said. “That’s galactically off base.”

Crist’s recidivism rate in 2010 and 2011 is lower than the recidivism rate for all Florida felons — 25.2 percent.

Felons who have their rights restored are less likely to reoffend, experts say.

Rosalind Osgood had her voting rights restored under Crist in 2008 after a conviction for cocaine possession in 1989.

She now has a doctorate and has been elected to the Broward County School Board.

“It allowed me to be a whole person,” Osgood said of getting her voting rights back. “Why should I be required to work, pay taxes and be a productive citizen, but, when there’s an election, I can’t vote? That kind of public policy takes hope away from people.”

Amendment 4 on the November ballot would take the voting restoration process out of the hands of the governor and Cabinet.

Robert Quinlan, a 67-year-old Republican cattle rancher from Alachua County, supports the proposed amendment even though it likely would dent GOP prospects.

Quinlan describes himself as an unwavering conservative and a “Trumper.”

In 1979, when he was 28, he was charged with conspiracy to traffic cocaine. He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation for five years — and stripped of his right to vote for the next four decades.

He said raw politics is at the heart of the current system.

“I know (the amendment) means Republicans might lose power,” Quinlan said. “But civil rights do not belong to the state. It’s not theirs to take away. It’s the right thing to do.”

Data reporters Mahima Singh and Chris Persaud and staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.

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Dan Boone