Ladetra Johnson stood up straight behind the lectern in the cabinet room of the Florida State Capitol Building Thursday morning, holding the hand of her 5-year-old daughter. Dressed in a frilly white dress, the young girl smiled as Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his cabinet first complimented her outfit, then questioned Johnson on how she has rehabilitated her life since her felony conviction.
Johnson told the governor that she owns a salon, is enrolled in school to get a professional license, and works part-time at a beauty supply store.
Without further questions, the four members of the clemency board — Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Adam H. Putnam, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — agreed to restore Johnson’s civil rights. The young mother will now be able to vote in a state that disenfranchises more than 1.5 million people for their felony convictions.
After hearing the good news, Johnson asked if she and her family could take a photo with the board. Though they had just said they wanted to keep the schedule moving — there were more than 100 people being considered for various forms of clemency on Thursday — the governor agreed. “How can you say no to that girl,” Scott asked.
Johnson left the room happy, but a majority of the 101 people seeking some form of clemency — including 68 specifically asking for the restoration of their civil rights — did not. Florida has one of the strictest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country, requiring anyone with a felony conviction to apply for clemency from the governor in order to restore their right to vote. The process has become even more difficult since Scott took office in 2011 and instated a five to seven year waiting period before people like Johnson could even petition for their rights. The board meets just four times a year, and just a small fraction of the thousands of people who apply for clemency are even considered.
While Florida’s previous governor, Charlie Christ, restored rights to 155,315 people during his four years in office, Scott eliminated the automatic process, requiring every petitioner to appear before him. As a result, his administration has granted just 2,488 petitions in his first six years in office.
Johnson was lucky to be one of the small number of people who make it through Scott’s system. But voting advocates don’t think civil rights should be left up to luck.
Thursday’s meeting came at a time of uncertainty for the future of Florida’s clemency board due to ongoing litigation over the process. In April 2017, the Fair Elections Legal Network filed suit against Scott and the clemency board, claiming the process is “wholly arbitrary” and leaves millions of people’s voting rights up to the “unrestrained discretion” of elected officials.
In March, a court sided with the plaintiffs and ordered the governor to come up with a new system to restore voting rights. All of the people who were supposed to have their petitions heard during the board’s March meeting had their petitions put on hold. Voting advocates declared victory. But the night before the deadline by which Scott was to propose a new system, an appeals court stayed the ruling. As a result, the current clemency process was allowed to continue for the time being.
The lawsuit isn’t the only obstacle putting the future of rights restoration in Florida in limbo. This November, Florida voters will decide on the issue via a ballot measure, the Voting Rights Restoration Amendment. If passed with at least 60 percent approval, most Florida citizens with felony records will have their voting rights automatically restored. The amendment could fundamentally change the electorate in one of the country’s most critical swing states.
Scott says he does not support automatic restoration — he believes he should personally consider every case individually and determine if the petitioners have turned their lives around and deserve to have their rights restored. On Thursday, he made that judgment call dozens of times, often denying restoration of civil rights because individuals weren’t present in the room to explain themselves, because their charges were too recent, or because they were not given a favorable recommendation by the Florida Commission on Offender Review.
“It takes so long for an application to be processed and heard,” said attorney Richard Greenberg, who has represented dozens of petitioners before the clemency board for roughly 28 years. Greenberg said he “absolutely” supports the passage of the Voting Rights Restoration Amendment because the current system is arbitrary and unfair.
“Florida is an outlier in this whole country in the way that people are denied the restoration of their rights, particularly to vote,” he said. “I’ve never understood how there’s any connection between committing a criminal offense and whether you can vote or not.”
On Thursday, Greenberg was at the clemency board meeting to represent two clients. One of them, 80-year-old John Herlihy, received an unfavorable recommendation but came to the meeting to plead his case.
“He’s doing everything he can to show that he is a productive member of society and deserves civil rights,” Greenberg told the clemency board.
When he took the stand to speak himself, Herlihy said that he was raised in a violent part of the country, which explains his criminal record, but that he has turned his life around and is active in the motorcycle community.
“I’ve never understood how there’s any connection between committing a criminal offense and whether you can vote or not.”
“I think its important for me to be able to vote for my representatives so I can have a voice in speaking to them about things I’d like to change in the motorcycle world,” he said. “I am 80-years-old and I haven’t had an offense in a long time.”
After looking over Herlihy’s file, Scott pointed out that from 1998 to 2016, Herlihy voted illegally 28 times. “It doesn’t sound like you had any limitation on your ability to vote,” he said sarcastically. “Why are you continuing to vote illegally?”
Herlihy explained that he wasn’t aware at the time that his felony conviction precluded him from voting, and that when he found out in 2016, he stopped casting ballots.
“I had already voted in the  primary but I didn’t vote in the general,” he said. “I’m looking forward to voting in the primary this year.”
But the clemency board decided not to give him that chance. Bondi pointed out that his charges for participating in an illegal sex business were serious, and she questioned why he received such a lenient sentence. “You’re lucky that the human trafficking laws weren’t in effect when you entered these pleas,” she said. “You’re fortunate you’re not in prison for the rest of your life based on these charges,” she later added.
The board agreed to deny his petition.
He wasn’t alone. The Florida Commission on Offender Review gave 44 of Thursday’s petitioners seeking restoration of their civil rights unfavorable recommendations. In total, the clemency board denied 26 of them, postponed or put under advisement roughly 12, and granted just six.
Reggie Garcia, an attorney who has represented dozens of petitioners over the decades and has written a book about Florida’s clemency process, told ThinkProgress that the clemency board might be less likely to grant petitions with unfavorable recommendations in 2018 because it’s an election year and three of the four members are running for office.
“It just means they’re traditionally risk averse, especially if an applicant’s got strong victim or state attorney opposition,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee the governor and cabinet will say no, but it just makes it a higher hurdle.”
A few times during the meeting, an advocate for the victims of the petitioners approached the lectern to read prepared victim impact statements aloud. At least one was ready to forgive her perpetrator and asked that he be granted clemency, but another — who was molested by the petitioner, her grandfather, at a young age — urged the board to deny his application. The board agreed with the victims in both instances.
Patronis, a member of the clemency board, asked many of the petitioners about their marital status. Often, he indicated that a long marriage or relationship meant the person was in a better position than someone single or divorced. At one point, a petitioner said his wife would rather not speak on his behalf because she was extremely nervous and shy.
“I’m going to ask his wife to speak,” Patronis said. “Believe me, you want her to speak.”
For the most part, the board didn’t defy the commission’s recommendations very often. During the meeting, Scott explained that it’s difficult for him to grant individuals’ petitions if they have an unfavorable recommendation and they don’t appear in person, and only eight of them were available. For many petitioners, appearing in the capitol requires a long trip to Tallahassee from far corners of the state (or other states, if the petitioners are traveling or have moved elsewhere). And then there’s flight or other transportation costs, plus a hotel stay.
Nonetheless, Greenberg said the trip is worth the hassle if individuals want better odds that their petitions will be granted. “You definitely want to do everything you can to be there in person,” he said.
That was true for 45-year-old Faith Kiss, who told the Huffington Post that she woke up at 2 a.m. to drive to Tallahassee to appear before the board. Her daughter also attended, and read a statement about her mother’s positive influence on her life. Kiss was one of the six people with unfavorable recommendations who had their voting rights restored.
“I waited so long,” she said. I wanted to see it all the way through.”
One of Thursday’s petitioners, 58-year-old Glenn Seisser, was planning on attending the meeting in-person until he determined Wednesday that he had too many work obligations to make it to Tallahassee from Boynton Beach, where he owns his own company. Seisser told ThinkProgress that appearing in person would have required taking at least three days off work and spending large sums of money on travel. Boynton Beach is roughly 400 miles from the capital.
“I probably would have gone, I’m just extremely busy with big projects,” he said Wednesday. “On top of that, it would cost like $700 or $800 for the airfare and more for the hotel. It’s just crazy… I’m just going to trust God that it’ll be a favorable ruling.”
“I think most people deserve a second chance while we’re on this earth.”
Seisser was one of the first people in the United States to plead guilty to penny stock fraud in 1989, and has avoided trouble with the law since. He submitted a letter from his pastor and other materials showing how he raised three kids, started his own business, quit using illegal substances, and has learned from the mistake he made when he was young and eager to earn money quickly without thinking about the implications.
Luckily for Seisser, the Florida Commission on Offender Review gave him a favorable recommendation and Scott restored his civil rights Thursday, roughly seven years after he first filed for clemency.
“Obviously I’m happy,” he said after the decision. “I don’t want to say it’s a weight off my shoulders, but I feel like having done the right thing for so many years has paid off. Obviously I did some things that were wrong and I needed to be disciplined for that, but I think I was overly penalized for what I did.”
Seisser said the decision was a long time coming, as he first filed for clemency close to seven years ago.
“I think most people deserve a second chance while we’re on this earth.”