BY STEVEN LEMONGELLO
ORLANDO SENTINEL / TNS
ORLANDO – Desmond Meade of Orlando did everything he could to support his wife, Sheena, in her unsuccessful run for the Florida House last year. But the one thing he couldn’t do was vote for her.
“Basically, I was told I wasn’t a citizen anymore,” said Meade, one of about 1.7 million people in Florida permanently barred from voting because of a past felony conviction, despite having completed their sentences.
Now, a group led by Meade, a former addict convicted on drug and firearm charges in 2001 who went on to earn a law degree, appeared before the state Supreme Court on Monday in an important step in getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
If it makes the ballot and wins approval by voters, the amendment would restore voting rights to felons who have completed sentences for nonviolent felonies.
“It’s the most amazing thing,” Meade said of the more than 75,000 verified signatures collected so far by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition from across the state. “We were able – with no money, and no significant source of funding –to gather enough signatures for Supreme Court review.”
The people collecting signatures, he said, represent “a wide spectrum of Americans – White, Black, Latino, young and old, conservative and progressive. Just people who believe in second chances.”
Florida is one of just three states in the nation that permanently bars ex-felons from voting unless they receive clemency. Even among those three, Florida is an outlier due to Gov. Rick Scott’s strict standards.
Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, said 80 percent to 90 percent of applicants in the other two states with such restrictions – Iowa and Kentucky – have their rights restored within a few years. In Florida, it often takes as long as 14 years for someone to have their petitions heard by the governor.
“Nobody restricts (former) felons from voting rights and holding jobs like the state of Florida,” said Paulson, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, adding that almost 30 percent of all ex-felons in the country unable to vote live in the Sunshine State. “I don’t take any pride in Florida leading the nation.”
Paulson said many crimes, such as driving with a revoked license or trespassing on a construction site, are felonies in Florida instead of being considered lesser misdemeanors elsewhere, increasing the number of people affected.
In addition, about 20 percent of the state’s African-American population, more than half a million people, are unable to vote because of a past felony conviction, including more than 30 percent of all voter-eligible Black men in Florida.
“We have communities where there’s large numbers of Blacks who can’t exercise political power (and) can’t hold local officials responsible, because they simply can’t vote,” said former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando.
Grayson introduced an unsuccessful U.S. House bill last year that would have automatically restored ex-felons’ voting rights, calling it the “civil rights cause of the 21st century.”
Paulson said there is “very definitely a racial component” in the origins of the Florida law, dating back to the days after the Civil War, Jim Crow and the White Democratic South. While today ex-felons are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans, Paulson said, “This is an area where Republicans have the opportunity to do the right thing.”
Restricted under Scott
Under former Republican Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, there was a trend toward greater clemency, experts say. But Scott changed how clemency is granted.
“During the Charlie Crist years, there was a significant movement towards restoring peoples’ civil rights,” Meade said. “Under the current administration, those policies have been rolled back so significantly.”
Under Bush, more than 75,000 people had their voting rights restored, Meade said. Under Crist, that number was more than 150,000. But that dropped to fewer than 2,000 a year under Scott, who meets four times a year as part of a clemency board to go through thousands of applications.
Today, ex-felons must wait five years after completing a sentence, probation and parole, plus an additional seven years if it was a drug offense, before they can be considered by the clemency board.
“Gov. Scott believes that in order for felons to have their rights restored, they have to demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime, show a willingness to request to have their rights restored, and show restitution to the victims of their crime,” said Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone.
If the initial review is approved by the court, it would still need to undergo fiscal and ballot summary reviews.
Meade’s group would then need to gather a total of more than 766,000 signatures from across the state. Only then would it go before voters, most likely in 2018 or 2020.
“America is a nation of second chances,” said Meade, who received his law degree in 2014 but can’t practice in Florida because he’s barred from voting. “It makes economic sense. It makes public safety sense. And it makes moral sense.”