By Peter Wallsten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 2:20 PM
Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other Cabinet-level officials voted unanimously Wednesday to roll back state rules enacted four years ago that made it easier for many ex-felons to regain the right to vote.
Now, under the new rules, even nonviolent offenders would have to wait five years after the conclusion of their sentences to apply for the chance to have their civil rights restored.
The vote carries national political implications. Many GOP leaders never forgave then-Gov. Charlie Crist for his move to make civil rights restoration almost automatic for most ex-felons.
The 2007 rule change spurred more than 100,000 ex-felons to earn the ability to register to vote ahead of the 2008 election in which then-candidate Barack Obama swept Florida. Experts say many of those new voters were likely Democratic-leaning African Americans.
The new rule, drafted by Attorney General Pam Bondi, had not been released publicly until just moments before Wednesday's meeting of the state's executive clemency board, which consists of Scott, Bondi and two other statewide elected officials - all of them Republican.
Public comment was limited, with black lawmakers, civil rights leaders and a county elections official decrying the change as unfair and overly hasty. Several proosecutors and law enforcement officials backed the change, saying ex-felons needed to prove their commitment to living crime-free.
Before 2007, ex-felons were forced to apply and, in many cases, wait years for a clemency-board hearing for a chance to have their rights restored and gain the ability to vote or obtain occupational licenses. The Crist plan retained hearings for the most violent offenders, but since 2007 most ex-felons have been placed automatically in line to be considered for rights restoration.
Under the new rules, violent offenders will have to wait seven years before applying for their civil rights.
"This issue of civil rights restoration is about principle, not partisanship," said Jennifer Meale, Bondi's spokeswoman. "Attorney General Bondi is philosophically opposed to the concept of automatic restoration of civil rights and believes not only that felons should apply for their rights, but wait for a period of time in order to attest to their rehabilitation and commitment to living a crime-free life."
Democrats and voting rights groups, which had made restoration of felons' voting rights a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre for years before Crist's action, are angry at Bondi for what they say is a secretive and hasty push to turn back the clock. Critics note Florida's importance to Obama's reelection next year, when minority voters will be a focus for his campaign.
"It clearly has the effect of suppressing the vote as we go into a presidential election cycle," said Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Elsewhere in the country, newly elected GOP leaders are advocating new voting laws that they argue would help curb election fraud. Democrats are pushing back, arguing that Republicans are simply looking for ways to depress voting among core Obama supporters.
According to the ACLU, about 154,000 ex-felons in Florida have had their civil rights restored since 2007. Until then, the state restored the rights of only about 8,000 ex-felons per year, the group said, citing state government data.
Crist pushed the new rule in 2007 as he was looking for inroads into the state's black electorate. He won praise from Florida's black legislative caucus, which had long made the issue a priority.
But the change was one of a number of grievances cited last year by state Republicans to explain Crist's decline in support within the party. He ultimately abandoned the GOP, amid dismal polls in his U.S. Senate primary against Marco Rubio, to run as an independent. He and his supporters often cited his move on felons' rights in appeals to Democratic audiences, but Crist lost the general election.