In Florida, People With Past Felony Convictions Can't Vote, But That Could All Change
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
On the ballot in Florida this election is an amendment to the state constitution that would restore voting rights to about 1 1/2 million people. These are people who were convicted of felonies at some point in their lives. Florida is one of just four states that blocks people with felony convictions from voting even after serving their sentences.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Right now the only way they can get their voting rights restored is to apply and then ask the governor and members of his Cabinet for forgiveness, sometimes in person. NPR's Embedded podcast followed two people through this process. Kelly McEvers has the story.
RICK SCOTT: The Executive Clemency board meeting is now called to order. I want to welcome everyone here today.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We're in the basement of the state Capitol building in Tallahassee. The vibe is somewhere between court and the DMV. There are about a hundred people on the agenda. They've all been convicted of a felony at some point - drug-related stuff, some domestic violence. There's a guy who shot and wounded his bully when he was a teenager. And most of these convictions are decades old. People are now in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
SHEILA: I didn't think it was going to be this rough.
MCEVERS: That's Sheila. She's 54. She's white. She asked us not to use her last name because it could affect her work. Sheila applied to get her voting rights back 10 years ago, and only now has she been able to appear before the governor. And she's scared.
SHEILA: This is a bad idea. I should've just left it be. As the tick-tock gets closer, the more and more I think about just getting in my car and going home.
MCEVERS: In 1993, Sheila was working for the U.S. Postal Service delivering mail. An indictment against her alleged that she bought or helped someone else buy about $1,500 worth of stuff with a credit card that wasn't hers, a card that was addressed to someone else in the mail. Sheila pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony - no jail time but three years' probation and about a thousand dollars' restitution. She felt so much shame that for years she told no one about what happened.
SHEILA: I had not spoken of it, talked about it, buried it under the carpet.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Number 17.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Good morning.
MCEVERS: Another woman who is scheduled to ask for her voting rights back is Marion Scaggs. Marion is 57, and she's black. We talked to her the day before the hearing. Marion started doing drugs after high school, mostly crack. She got multiple drug charges over the years. Then in 2007, she was in jail when she was told her oldest son had been murdered.
MARION SCAGGS: That was the biggest loss I ever had in my life - was my son. But that was the catalyst for me to get clean.
MCEVERS: Marion says she hasn't used drugs since. She got out of jail, went to college, then got a masters specializing in addiction and wants to be a counselor. For now she's a supervisor in the housekeeping division of a hotel in Tampa. And she says it's embarrassing she can't vote. She's reminded of it every election, like in 2016.
SCAGGS: We were in the break room, and one of my co-workers was like, who did you vote for? And I just said, I'm keeping it a secret. And that way I avoided the whole conversation.
MCEVERS: A majority of people with felony convictions in Florida these days are white. But this whole process in Florida started with attempts to keep black people from voting. It was after the Civil War when Southern states had to rewrite their constitutions to allow freed slaves to become citizens. But what they did was pass what are known as Black Codes, creating new crimes like vagrancy and arresting people for these crimes and charging them with felonies and then ruling that anyone who has committed a felony would lose their voting rights for life. All of this became law in Florida in the 1860s, and the voting part is still in the constitution.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Number 77 is here.
MCEVERS: So we're back at the hearing, and Sheila's number comes up. Florida Governor Rick Scott starts.
SCOTT: Good afternoon.
SHEILA: Hi, good afternoon.
SCOTT: OK, so you were convicted of embezzling a letter and taking a Discover credit card.
MCEVERS: He talks about Sheila's original conviction in 1993. But then he asks about a fender bender from 2012.
SHEILA: I'm sorry. I paid for his truck repairs.
MCEVERS: It's questions like this that go beyond the original felony conviction that critics of these hearings say are a problem. Board members can ask about anything - how many kids you have, how much you drink, whether you go to church. And there are no standards for whether you get approved or denied. Supporters of these hearings say people with felony convictions should have to prove that they deserve the right to vote again. And for Sheila, the questions do eventually go back to her original conviction.
SCOTT: You stole credit cards.
SHEILA: One. And I'm not even sure how that came in my possession.
PAM BONDI: You're a postal worker.
SHEILA: I was a postal worker, but I did not remove that letter from the mail that was entrusted to me.
BONDI: Did you use the credit card? Was it not in your - it wasn't in your name?
SHEILA: It was not in my name.
MCEVERS: Sheila says it was actually someone else who used the credit card, a man she was shopping with that day. She says she thinks he took it from the mail she was supposed to deliver.
SHEILA: I'm pretty convinced that he took it out of the mail vehicle when it was...
MCEVERS: And then Pam Bondi says she believes her.
BONDI: She walked up here and admitted her guilt because she knew that's what we wanted to hear. And she didn't want to. You could tell. I don't know. I just - I believe her.
MCEVERS: It has taken Sheila 10 years to get to this moment.
SCOTT: OK, I move to grant.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Agree.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Agree.
SCOTT: Good luck.
SHEILA: Thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you very much.
MCEVERS: As Sheila walks back to her seat, people give her high-fives. For Marion Scaggs, it's different. She couldn't make it to the hearing. She says she only got the call about five days before, and she couldn't get off work to make the long drive from Tampa to be here. Still, her number comes up. Her name on some government documents is Mary Katherine.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Number 83, Mary Katherine Scaggs, is not here. She indicated that she had not received her notifications until just recently but indicated to go ahead with your decision today.
SCOTT: I deny.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Number 84, Charles...
MCEVERS: And it's all over before it even starts. Sheila says she doesn't think these hearings are fair.
SHEILA: I'm a white chick, and I have a fairly comfortable lifestyle. I work hard for it. I work really hard. But there are so many people that don't have those advantages and are looked at differently. And it bothers me greatly.
MCEVERS: The state of Florida does not release data on the race of people who apply to get their voting rights back, but the Palm Beach Post recently found that under Rick Scott, this process of asking for your rights back does discriminate against black people. For example, three times as many white men got their voting rights back as black men. Spokespeople for Governor Scott, Pam Bondi and one other member on the board declined our request for an interview. The fourth member did not get back to us.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: With Amendment 4, people convicted of felonies when they've served all the terms ordered by a judge earn back their eligibility to vote.
MCEVERS: So now Amendment 4, which is on the ballot in Florida next Tuesday and which polls show has a chance of passing, could end these hearings and automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies once they've done their time. People convicted of murder or sexual crimes would not be eligible for restoring their rights. Sheila says she hopes to vote next Tuesday and vote for Amendment 4.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)
MCEVERS: We called Marion after the hearing and told her she didn't get back her voting rights.
SCAGGS: Stuff like that breaks a person's spirit. It's disheartening. It really breaks you down, you know?
MCEVERS: Marion will not be able to vote for Amendment 4 even though she's the one who would benefit from it the most.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHANG: That's from the NPR podcast Embedded hosted by Kelly McEvers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.