More than 1.5 million adults in Florida are ineligible to vote because they have felony convictions. Voters rights’ groups are hoping that will change on Tuesday.
Known as the voting rights restoration initiative, constitutional Amendment 4 would fundamentally alter the way convicted felons participate in democracy.
If it passes, those with felony convictions will be able have voting rights restored automatically if they’ve completed their sentences, including parole and probation. It doesn’t apply to anyone convicted of murder or sexual assault. Supporters of the amendment say the current process to apply for restoration of those rights is prohibitively difficult and arbitrary.
The ballot measure needs 60 percent of the vote to pass. At the beginning of 2018, Floridians for a Fair Democracy collected more than 799,000 certified petition signatures, or about 33,000 more than the group needed to get the measure on the ballot.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington nonprofit that advocates sentencing reform, says Florida is “ground zero” for disenfranchised felons.
Of the 6.1 million disenfranchised felons in the U.S., about 1.7 million live in Florida — the most of any state, Mauer said. Only 12 states disenfranchise people for a felony conviction after they’ve served their sentence, he said.
“The numbers in Florida really dwarf any other state,” Mauer said.
The Florida ballot proposal has been championed by celebrities — singer John Legend held a community event in Orlando in October to highlight the issue. And it’s been the subject of several national news pieces.
Currently, felons in Florida can only regain voting ability if they apply to the state Office of Executive Clemency. The felon’s case is heard by the governor and his Cabinet, and sometimes, the person seeking restoration will go before the board and explain their situation, and how they have repented or been rehabilitated. Florida’s governor has a unilateral veto on the applications.
Shortly after taking office in 2007, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist persuaded two of the state’s three Cabinet members to approve rules that would allow the parole commission to restore voting rights for nonviolent felons without a hearing. Within a year, more than 100,000 ex-felons were granted voting rights.
But Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet ended automatic restoration of voting rights as one of Scott’s first acts upon taking office in 2011.
Siottis Jackson, 30, of Jacksonville, is director of the North Florida chapter of Second Chances, a nonprofit group supporting Amendment 4. He’s been a political activist for years. In 2015, he was convicted of a felony fraud charge, meaning that he asks people to vote, but can’t vote himself.
“I work for candidates and I can’t vote for them,” he said. “I live in a community where a lot of people are affected by this.”
Jackson said that when people lose their right to vote, “they begin to lose their hope and their engagement in our democracy.”
“If there’s a streetlight out, they don’t complain. They feel their voice isn’t going to be heard. It reduces their interest in community pride. They say, ‘I don’t get involved, because I don’t have the right to vote.’”
Adding more than a million people to the state’s voter rolls could have broad implications in a state where elections are often won by a razor-thin margin. In 2016, President Donald Trump won Florida with less than 50 percent of the vote, defeating Hillary Clinton 49 percent to 47.8 percent, or 112,911 votes.
Separately, Florida’s process of restoring voting rights to felons is winding its way through an appeals court case. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled the state’s system is unconstitutional because it is arbitrary and open to having applications approved or rejected for political reasons. He ordered the state to revamp its system, but Scott’s administration appealed. The appellate court put Walker’s order on hold while it considers the case.
A spokesman for Scott has said that judges should interpret the law, not create it, and that the governor will “never stop fighting for victims of crime and their families.”