For some, Friday is a special day.
The date marks the 150-year anniversary of Florida’s constitutionalized disenfranchisement of voters, a Jim Crow-era policy that’s still relevant in 2018, as the state revokes voting rights for convicted felons — even after they’ve completed their sentences.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Florida is one of just three states with a “lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions.” The Center estimated in 2016 that around 1.6 million ex-cons await restoration of their voting rights.
Restoration, or clemency, is an issue that’s come into the fore. The state’s clemency process, headed by Gov. Rick Scott along with the Florida Cabinet, was deemed unconstitutional in February by U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker. In March, Walker ordered the Executive Clemency Board to devise a new method for restoring voting rights within 30 days.
Walker’s actions and sharp critiques of the state’s clemency system followed the success of a voter-driven amendment to automatically restore voting rights to some felons in the Sunshine State. In November that language (Amendment 4) will appear on the ballot. If it’s approved by 60 percent of voters, rights will be restored to Floridians who have served their sentences, barring convicted murderers and sexual offenders.
That pro-felons’ rights momentum, however, was interrupted in April, when a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted Scott and the Cabinet a stay for the 30-day mandated deadline, meaning no immediate changes would come to Florida’s clemency system. It was considered a win for the Executive Clemency Board.
Now, on the birthdate of disenfranchisement in Florida, Second Chances, a group backing Amendment 4, is attempting to remind Floridians that the disenfranchised walk among them, whether the distinction is merited or not.
Second Chances says Angel Sanchez, a former prison inmate who is now attending law school at the University of Miami, is one of many who’ve had their rights taken away — despite serving a sentence and showing a commitment to contributing to society.
“I know I have made mistakes in my past, and I have also served the sentence that was the consequence of those mistakes,” Sanchez said in a Second Chances news release. “I am so proud to stand with Floridians of all walks of life who believe that returning citizens like me have earned a Second Chance and deserve an opportunity to earn back the eligibility to vote.”
Veterans, according to Second Chances, are particularly affected by disenfranchisement.
Cynthia Fussell O’Donnel, a Navy veteran and Panhandle native who supports Second Chances, said the total number of veterans who’ve been disenfranchised is “incalculable.” Though in the last five years, about 10,000 vets have completed sentences and have not had their voting rights restored.
“Florida’s lifetime voting ban has a major impact on people who have served our country in the military,” Fussell O’Donnel said.
For Sheriff Leon County Walt McNeil, the issue is public safety.
Citing statistics from the Florida Parole Commission, McNeil said returning citizens who vote are three times less likely to re-offend.
“One-hundred and fifty years is long enough,” McNeil, a former secretary of the Department of Corrections, said.“Let’s make our communities safer by fighting for Second Chances.”