Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said Florida needs to do more for clemency and felon voting rights restoration during a Tuesday night town hall.
Fried, currently the lone statewide elected Democrat, put her views on voting restoration progress simply: “We’re just not doing it.”
Following the town hall geared toward members of the African-American community, Fried said clemency confuses lawmakers.
“They don’t know what they passed. They don’t know what the issues are, the differences between clemency and Amendment 4 and recognizing that the clemency board today has the power to make the changes,” Fried said.
In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Legislature’s take (SB 7066) on Amendment 4 requiring that felons pay off fines and debts before having their voting rights restored. The measure has faced legal scrutiny, most recently being temporarily blocked by a federal judge, as critics liken the restriction to a poll tax.
“You are putting something in the path of being able to vote,” Fried said. “The fundamental rights that are given to us in the Constitution are voicing our opinions and our vote is an essential aspect of what democracy in America means, and by adding this special condition, you are discriminating against those individuals.”
And Fried, whose department partakes in clemency board meetings, lamented the fact that the board had only restored civil rights to 20 convicted felons in Gov. DeSantis’ first year in office. Previous governors had seen restoration totals around 150,000 at the end of their terms, she added.
“We are going to be that constant voice and that constant thorn in the clemency board’s side until we get this right,” Fried said.
Jeff Branch, an Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity member representing the National Pan-Hellenic Council of Tallahassee moderated the town hall. Co-host organizations included the NAACP Tallahassee Branch, Tallahassee Urban League and Tallahassee Barristers Association.
“It was informative for me and I appreciate her sharing that and really getting out into an audience typically forgotten about until election time,” Branch said.
On the question of her office’s composition, Fried said she would continue to prioritize diversity as the state’s first female Agriculture Commissioner.
“In order to make a change to our state and to the department, we need to make sure all the voices have a seat at the table, and the only way that we do that is by diversifying the voices,” Fried said.
Early in the town hall, Fried highlighted when she joined a posthumous pardon of the Groveland Four. Also Tuesday, Fried and state Rep. Geraldine Thompson issued a statement saying that the four black men falsely convicted of raping a white woman in 1949 deserve to be fully exonerated.
Branch was pleased to hear Fried talk about consumer services, the oft-forgotten second role her department plays. In particular, she discussed nutrition and lunch-sharing programs her department is putting forward.
“No one’s asking for a hand out. They’re asking for a hand up,” Branch said.
With opening up medical marijuana and hemp production in Florida, Fried said her office has been studying the successes and failures of other states’ programs. In particular, she noted that minority and small business owners and farmers were not able to get in the medical marijuana business.
“You see white males across the country making millions on top of millions of dollars, and then African American men getting jailed for the same exact activity. That needs to change,” Fried said.