Lillian Johnson: Putting Florida felons back to work

Lillian Johnson, director of the Havana Learning Center, gives felons and community members who are down on their luck, a place to come together to look for work and get back on their feet. Photo by Michael Ciaglo/News21

Lillian Johnson is the founder and director of Havana (Fla.) Community Technology and Learning Center Inc. She works with felons by helping them find jobs.

“I think that after they’ve done their prison time, when they walk out of that door, they should be free citizens, right then. They should be able to have everything that they had before they went in,”Johnson said. “They’ve done the time for the crime that they’ve done. They should be free.

“They should be able to come right back out and pick up where they left off at — to be able to vote, especially. Because at this time, it’s critical. It’s critical. Do you realize how many prisoners come out and they can’t vote?”

By Andrea Rumbaugh, News21

Florida felons make case for access to the polls at clemency hearing

Florida governor Rick Scott, right, listens to testimony from felons who are seeking to have their civil rights restored at a clemency hearing Thursday in the state Capitol. Photo by Michael Ciaglo/News21

Florida felons seeking the right to vote took the opportunity Thursday to make their case at the state Board of Executive Clemency.

People had the chance to present to the board — comprising Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam — reasons they deserve to have their rights restored. They spoke of their original conviction, recent charges against them, drinking habits and past drug use. Family and friends could also speak on their behalf, and advocates sometimes read statements submitted by victims.

Christine Fickey, whose conviction was not announced at the hearing, petitioned for clemency to regain her voting rights.

“I’m in college at the Hodges University,” Fickey said. “I just took American government, so I was very interested in politics, having a professor so passionate about it.”

For a felon’s request to be granted, Scott and two other board members must approve. If Scott denies the request, then it is non-negotiable.

By Andrea Rumbaugh and Michael Ciaglo, News21

Florida officials will not release list of non-citizens on voter rolls

In early May, Florida officials suggested that as many as 180,000 potential non-citizens could be on the state’s voter rolls.

The estimate gained publicity for Gov. Rick Scott’s effort to eliminate illegally registered voters, but the list was thereafter slimmed to 2,700 and made public.

The list of 2,700 later turned up many false positives, with frustrated voters wondering why they were targeted. More than 100 on the list were, however, non-citizens, according to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

But with the list’s accuracy questioned, the larger list of 180,000 has not been released, despite repeated public records requests from news organizations.

Courtney Heidelberg, communications director at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV), said in an email that the Department of State submitted to them a list of voters, her agency provided the citizenship status for each and sent the matched list of 180,000 back to the Department of State.

But the department will not release it, and the state attorney general’s office does not have a copy, nor does the governor’s office. And the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the original custodian of records, will not release it.

“Please be advised that DHSMV is not authorized to release information protected by the Driver Privacy Protection Act,” Heidelberg said.

Chris Cate, spokesman for Detzner, said his agency is still reviewing the 180,000 names and will make them available if he and other officials deem it a public record.

By Ethan Magoc, News21

Florida prepares for fewer early voting hours

Florida’s early, in-person voting period will almost certainly shrink this fall. Prior to 2011, when the Republican Legislature altered state voting laws, county election officials were required to allow early voting for a minimum 14 days, which totaled 96 hours, including limited weekend hours.

Beginning this year counties have the option of matching those 96 hours, but the Legislature lowered the minimum requirement to eight days. The law, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala, Fla., also eliminated voting on the Sunday before the election. African-American churches traditionally reserved that day for “Souls to the Polls” campaigns.

In his first interview since the end of litigation over the law, Baxley said that eliminating the Sunday hours was all about timing.
“It seems like we had too tight a squeeze there (before Tuesday),” he said. “You had to count the early votes and be all set up in the counties for a general election in two days.”

His rationale does not sit well with Rodney Long, a retired Democratic politician in northern Florida’s Alachua County.

“If you tell me that there’s a problem with that Sunday, there should be some evidence. There’s 67 people in Florida who could provide it. (Lawmakers) did not receive any testimony from the 67 county officials about Sunday processing. Everyone’s voting electronically – no more chads, no delays,” Long said.

Long’s Gainesville-based group, the African American Accountability Alliance, will work with church and political leaders to mobilize early voting for alternative days, he said.

By Ethan Magoc, News21

Lawsuit claims Florida voter removal violates federal law

A coalition of voting rights groups has sued Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, arguing that state efforts to remove voters from rolls violates the National Voter Registration Act.

The suit — filed June 19 by the Advancement Project, Fair Elections Legal Network, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Project Vote — is one of several that have emerged since Florida Gov. Rick Scott launched an effort to remove non-citizens from voting rolls earlier this year.

Kathy Culliton-Gonzalez of the Advancement Project traces the voter purge, she said, to the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.

Judicial Watch and True the Vote, which trains volunteers to watch polls, sued Indiana elections officials June 11, alleging that the state is not maintaining accurate voter rolls. Judicial Watch maintains a list of up to a dozen states, including Florida, that the organization plans to sue for the same reasons, president Tom Fitton said.

Florida is taking “reasonable steps” to do things right, Fitton said, and emphasized that any eligible voter who gets accidentally removed can vote provisionally. Any suggestion that Judicial Watch or True the Vote is participating in a nationwide effort to suppress minority or Democratic votes is ridiculous, Fitton said.

By AJ Vicens, News21

Fight over Florida voter rolls leaves county officials in a lurch

The legal wrangle over who should remain on Florida voter rolls has caught counties in the middle of two lawsuits filed this week, said Michael Ertel, Seminole County supervisor of elections.

The Florida Secretary of State has sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for access to data that verifies citizenship. On the heels of that suit, the Justice Department  requested a federal injunction Monday to block what it calls voter purging.

“When you have two government entities not working together, this is what causes people to think government is inefficient,” Ertel said. “Politics gets in the way of a lot of this.”

Vicki Davis, Martin County supervisor of elections, said none of the 67 counties will move forward with the purge until the legal disputes are settled.

At the county level, she said, the focus is on conducting a problem-free Aug. 14 primary.

By Ethan Magoc, News21

Hold on Florida’s 48-hour registration deadline draws measured reactions

More than 300 Southwest Miami High School students register to vote on May 30 in the school auditorium. Photo by Ethan Magoc/News21

Two South Florida groups targeting student voter registration are giving reserved reviews to a May 31 decision by a federal judge to place a hold on a 48-hour deadline for turning in registration forms.

Jacquie Ayala, left, of Southern Energy Network, a third-party voter registrant, talks with Christina Jean, 19, of Lake Worth, Fla., on the campus of Florida Atlantic University on May 30. Photo by Ethan Magoc/News21.

John Doyle is an administrative director for Miami-Dade Public Schools, where the 2011 registration regulations were taken one step further.

“We had a self-imposed 24-hour turnaround, just to avoid any problems,” he said. “As an individual person, citizen and voter, I definitely have opinions about the 48-hour rule. But the court’s decision moving forward doesn’t matter to us administratively.”

At the college level, Southern Energy Network organizer Jacquie Ayala said she was thrilled with last week’s ruling.

“It’s huge for us. We’re a really small organization,” said Ayala, whose group has registered 547 new voters, nearly all of them college students. “Working hard to register people then meeting a 5 o’clock deadline every other day or face a fine was just too much sometimes.”

The school district and the energy network are just two of 146 registration groups that accounted for 287,481 new registrations, about three percent of the state’s registered voters, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

By Ethan Magoc, News21

Dawn Quarles: Confronting Florida’s registration law

Dawn Quarles is a teacher at Pace High School in Pace, Fla. Photo Provided

Florida high school teacher Dawn Quarles received national attention when she was ensnared by the state’s new voter registration law. An injunction by a federal court last week could prevent further incidents.

In October, Quarles was registering her Pace High School students to vote, and she turned in the forms four or five days after they were completed. She was not aware that the law had changed to require that registration applications be returned in 48 hours.

“For me, kids probably aren’t going to drive themselves to the supervisor of elections office, so I felt I needed to help them,” Quarles said in January.

The state never actually enforced her $1,000 fine, Quarles said, and with the new registration timeframe on hold, she may avoid similar fines in the future.

By Ethan Magoc, News21

Florida registration drives to resume

Anita Smith, 37, of Gainesville, Fla., updates her address at an Alachua County voter registration drive on April 21, 2012. Voter outreach departments at several county offices stepped up registration efforts after groups such as the League of Women Voters suspended their drives in 2011. Photo by Ethan Magoc/News21

After a 13-month hiatus, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Rock the Vote are again registering Florida voters.

In May 2011, the two groups stopped registration drives, which League President Deirdre Macnab said was the group’s most popular activity, because of the passage of HB 1355, a controversial elections bill that required voters to turn in completed registration forms within 48 hours.

In December, the groups filed federal suit in Tallahassee to block the 48-hour registration provision. A judge granted that injunction last Thursday, returning the registration form deadline to 10 days.

That prompted today’s announcement in Orlando.

“Now it’s time for our volunteers to work overtime to make up for lost ground,” Macnab said.

Proponents of the law, including Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Michael Ertel, have said the League’s decision to end registration drives was a publicity stunt.

“I said (to the League), ‘Please don’t cancel the drives. We will go to your drive, allow you to do the voter registration and handle it immediately,” he said Jan. 31 at a U.S. Senate Tampa hearing.

By Ethan Magoc, News21