In Florida, the governor is running for Senate (and gets to pick his own voters)

PHOTO: The Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida.PlaySTOCK/Getty Images
WATCH Florida Gov. Rick Scott running for Senate

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Joey Galasso lost his right to vote in 1998 when he was sentenced to three years in a Florida prison for being an accessory to robberies his brother committed.

After he was released Galasso waited 12 years for the Florida Board of Executive Clemency to give him a hearing on restoring his civil rights, including his right to vote. In that time, he started a flooring business, volunteered as a Bible study leader and even took up other careers as a bouncer and MMA fighter.

In March 2013 he faced the board. Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater seemed to support his case, but Gov. Rick Scott took issue with Galasso’s past speeding tickets.

“You’ve been out of prison 11 years and you’ve got all these traffic violations. . . . You’ve turned your life around but if you — if you really don’t care about the law and you have all these traffic violations it’s hard to say, ‘Gosh you really believe in the law,’” Scott said in the hearing.

A few days later, Galasso received a letter saying that the governor exercised his executive power and decided to reject Galasso’s application for a restoration of voting rights.

Galasso told ABC News during a phone interview five years after the decision that he has no issue with Scott but that the system needs fixing. Florida is one of three states where all felons lose their right to vote, with no distinction between violent and non-violent felons.

“I don’t have anything personal against Rick Scott but we need to have something in place… We can’t have one man have so much power,” Galasso said.

Stephen Warner voted illegally in the 2010 election because he is a convicted felon and the Clemency Board had not yet heard his case. But in December 2013, he went before the board seeking restoration of his voting rights. He ended his request with a personal appeal to the board’s most powerful member.

“I filed for voting rights and I voted for you,” Warner told Scott.

Scott laughed and a few seconds later moved to restore Warner’s voting rights. With the agreement of two fellow Republicans on the board, the governor’s motion took effect. Warner could now vote.

This process, in which felons who have served their time apply to a board of four elected state officials for various forms of clemency, including the restoration of their voting rights, is the only way for felons in Florida to regain their right to vote.

The state constitution gives the governor the unfettered discretion to deny clemency at any time for any reason, in line with a Supreme Court decision that gives governors the right to develop their own processes for granting clemency. As long as the governor gets the support of two other members of the board, which also includes the elected attorney general, chief financial officer and the agriculture commissioner, he or she can restore voting rights to anyone.

Nearly 1.7 million people in Florida, almost 10% of the potential electorate, do not have the right to vote because of Florida’s laws, the highest numbers in the nation, according to a report from the Sentencing Project. Florida has almost as many felons disenfranchised after their sentences as all other states combined.

The issue has come under increased scrutiny in recent years amid court challenges to the clemency system and Amendment 4, an upcoming November referendum where voters will have the opportunity to amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to non-violent felons.

Adding another complication to the system, Scott is running for U.S. Senate in a pivotal midterm election and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam is a Republican candidate for governor. Both appear on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary.

In effect, Scott and Putnam both have had the power to significantly shape the electorate for their own election bids.

PHOTO: Florida Gov. Rick Scott looks on after a news conference at the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) District Four Office, Aug. 22, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Wilfredo Lee/AP
Florida Gov. Rick Scott looks on after a news conference at the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) District Four Office, Aug. 22, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In four years of office, Scott’s predecessor Charlie Crist restored voting rights to more than 150,000 people. In the more than seven years of Scott’s governorship, he has restored voting rights to fewer than 3,000 people, while leaving more than 10,000 applications for clemency still pending.

Scott has faced allegations of voter suppression from political opponents and advocacy groups, with Democratic candidates incorporating it into their attacks on Republican opponents.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democratic candidate for Governor endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), has campaigned in favor of Amendment 4 as part of his advocacy for criminal justice reform, calling it “a step in the right direction” and criticized the existing process as “arbitrary and capricious.”

“This governor, this cabinet have had no shame around that… [it] resulted in the disenfranchising of an entire group of people just because they feel like it,” Gillum told ABC News.

Jeremy Ring, the presumptive Democratic nominee for chief financial officer, one of the four positions that sits on the Board of Clemency, has railed against Republicans for using non-violent felons’ voting rights as a political tool.

“I don’t know what’s the number of non-violent ex-felons who would vote, but it could swing the election against Gov. Scott and that’s what he and his team see,” Ring said in an interview with ABC News. “The non-violent ex-felons who want to get their rights restored are collateral damage to a Republican who wants to win a United States Senate seat.”

Scott’s administration has been the subject of multiple lawsuits regarding the state’s handling of voting rights issues. A group of felons whose clemency requests were rejected or have outstanding cases sued to challenge the clemency system on the grounds that the arbitrary decisions violate protections on the right to vote. A district court judge sided with the felons in April, criticizing Scott for a seemingly arbitrary rationale for granting clemency.

“In Florida, elected, partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines, or standards,” District Court Judge Mark Walker wrote in an April ruling ordering Scott to create a new process to restore felons’ voting rights. “The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”

A three-judge panel on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Walker and sided with the state, granting a stay preventing changes to the clemency system. The legal fight over the clemency board is still in progress.

“Florida historically has been one of the worst states for voting rights in America,” said Jon Sherman, senior counsel at the Fair Elections Legal Network and lead counsel on the lawsuit challenging the clemency system.

Sherman told ABC News he sees the potential for the system to be leveraged politically, but that the issue goes further than any political party.

“I couldn’t say what the reason is for why certain political actors do this. They obviously think it’s to their advantage, but for us the only thing that matters is that people of all parties are able to vote … this hurts Democrats, Republicans, independents, libertarians, everyone,” Sherman said.

Courts have stymied the state’s previous efforts to regulate voting rights. The state has lost court challenges in the last three years on decisions to not extend early voting days in 2016 after Hurricane Matthew, not allowing university buildings to be used as polling places and a rule that allowed election officials to throw out absentee ballots based on matching signatures to those in the poll book.

Scott has defended his record on voting, however, claiming despite the legal challenges that Florida is a top state for voting access, pointing to a 2013 law he signed expanding early voting.

“Under the Governor’s leadership, Florida has become one of the most voter-friendly states in the nation," John Tupps, Scott's spokesperson, said in a statement to ABC News. "This includes landmark legislation signed by the Governor in 2013 that gives Floridians more voting days, hours and sites so they can have plenty of options to vote.”

The 2013 legislation did expand the number of early voting days, but it was Scott's administration that, in a 2014 advisory opinion from the Florida Department of State's Division of Elections, decided to not allow university buildings to be used as early voting sites.

On clemency, Scott has also consistently emphasized his opposition to the efforts challenging his power as the court case has unfolded, framing it as an issue of ensuring justice for victims of crimes committed by felons.

“The Governor will always stand with victims of crime,” Tupps said in a May statement. “He believes that people who have been convicted of crimes like murder, violence against children and domestic violence, should demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime while being accountable to our communities.”

Although the advocacy in opposition to the ballot question on restoring felons’ voting rights has been limited, some conservatives have argued against granting those rights automatically and that states should have the right to develop their own processes.

“I just think it’s not a good thing to do it automatically and I think it’s OK for states to say, for example, we want to have a waiting period,” Hans von Spakovsky, a Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told ABC News.

“I don’t think there’s a problem with having a review process for a state to make sure that you have turned over a new leaf,” von Spakovsky added.

Scott has actively embraced his power to develop his own process, explaining his own view of clemency in a December 2016 Board of Clemency hearing.

“There’s no standard,” Scott said. “We can do whatever we want.”

For Galasso, however, the issue has less to do with any political issue more than creating a path for those people who make a similar mistake to his.

“On the day my rights are restored,” Galasso said, “that means there’s hope for the many, many, many others who come behind me.”

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