BY DAN SWEENEY
SUN SENTINEL / TNS
FORT LAUDERDALE – The new year could mark a major milestone toward hundreds of thousands of Floridians regaining the right to vote.
The Florida Supreme Court in March will hear arguments on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow felons – except murderers and sex offenders – to have their voting rights restored after they complete prison and probation.
Just over 6 million felons in the United States are unable to vote, according to The Sentencing Project, a prison reform group. About 1.7 million of them live in Florida, which amounts to more than 10 percent of the state’s voting population.
One of three
Florida is one of just three states that takes away voting rights for life, and the state’s population is far larger than the other two: Mississippi and Kentucky.
Most states restore voting rights after felons have served their sentences, including parole and probation. Vermont and Maine even allow absentee voting from prison.
A political action committee, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, is pushing for the change and gathered the needed signatures required for a Supreme Court review. If approved, and the group can gather another 600,000 signatures, the proposed amendment could be before voters in the 2018 election.
“Each year about 170,000 people in Florida are convicted of felony offenses, but slightly less than 25 percent are sent to prison,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
“So the overwhelming majority of people we’re talking about are people who haven’t spent one day in prison. They’re out in the community trying to regain their lives. They’re our family, our friends, our congregations.”
As it stands now, the only way they can get back their voting rights is through a clemency board consisting of the governor and the Florida state Cabinet – the state attorney general, the commissioner of agriculture and the chief financial officer.
Few restored under Scott
That board has wide latitude in deciding who gets their rights restored. Under former Gov. Charlie Crist, more than 155,000 nonviolent felons regained their rights. But since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2010, that dropped to just 1,952 individuals.
With so little hope of success, even the applications to have rights restored have dropped 95 percent since 2010.
Some 500,000 of the 1.7 million Floridians who have lost the right to vote are African-American – just over 20 percent of the state’s African-American population. That makes the issue a major concern in the African-American community, but Meade points out that it also means more than a million of these disenfranchised voters are not black.
“It’s very easy for this to be pigeonholed as an African-American issue or a political issue, but our belief is that this transcends those things,” Meade said. “This issue impacts all Americans.”
A green light
With almost no financial backing, Floridians for a Fair Democracy gathered the 68,314 signatures needed to trigger a review by the state Supreme Court. As of yet, while the Florida Division of Elections has filed a brief in favor of the amendment, no one has filed against it.
The court will examine the amendment to make sure it is narrowly tailored to make one change to the state constitution and is not deceptive. If it finds the proposal meets those goals, it will approve it to be on the ballot in the 2018 election.
Then comes the hard part; the signatures already gathered are just 10 percent of the number needed to qualify to be on the ballot.
Supporters of other recent amendments that have gone on the ballot have paid millions of dollars to companies to gather signatures. Floridians for a Fair Democracy has raised just $133,000 since 2014, when the committee formed, and $121,000 of that amount has come in just the last four months, mostly from national liberal advocacy groups that took notice once the amendment qualified for Supreme Court review.
“There are 1.7 million people who can’t vote in this state. If each of them gets one family member who’s a registered voter to sign a petition, that’s more than enough, right?” Meade said.
“With no funding, we’ve gotten to the Supreme Court. I think that speaks greatly to the amount of people who are impacted and the breadth of people who believe in second chances. … There will be a significant mobilization of volunteers throughout this state, and I’m expecting congregations of faith to lead this charge.”
Legal change possible
And if that charge should fail, there’s always the Florida Legislature.
State Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, has filed a bill that would put to voters a proposed amendment similar to the one being pushed by Floridians for a Fair Democracy.
“It’s a great chain dragging down our state,” Clemens said. “We lead the nation by a large margin in the number of former felons who can’t exercise their constitutional rights. And there really is no good excuse for it.”