photo by Kelley Minars
If you live in the Sunshine State, as I do, you might have a duck-and-cover reflex that kicks in whenever you spot a headline containing the words “voting” and “Florida.”
Mine nearly sent me under my hotel room desk on Tuesday. But when nothing bad seemed to happen – no broken glass, no hanging chads – I emerged from my fetal position and realized that the headline from the Tampa Bay Times article actually conveyed good news: “Florida voters will have say on restoring voting rights to felons.”
Last spring, I wrote in this space about a segment on Samantha Bee’s program “Full Frontal” that focused on Florida’s unusually harsh disenfranchisement laws aimed at those convicted of a felony. As I wrote, and as Bee observed, Florida is one of the three strictest states in the nation in this respect; under current state law, anyone convicted of a felony in Florida loses his or her right to vote permanently unless the governor and the Board of Executive Clemency grant a rare exception.
I was happy to sign the petition supporting a ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution and allow an estimated 1.5 million Floridians who have fully paid their debt to society to regain their voting rights. Not only is the existing system unfair, it costs Florida taxpayers a substantial sum to fund the Florida Commission on Offender Review, the organization that reviews clemency applications. That agency requires an average of 5.1 hours to review a single application under the current rules, and most of those applications are nevertheless denied by the clemency board.
Florida requires 766,000 valid petition signatures for an initiative to appear on the ballot. On Tuesday, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced that the voting rights restoration proposal had surpassed that benchmark and that the initiative will appear as Amendment 4 (or the “Voting Restoration Amendment”) on statewide ballots this November.
If Amendment 4 succeeds, it will automatically restore voting rights to most people convicted of felonies after they completely serve their sentences, including parole or probation; the exception will be individuals convicted of murder or sexual assault. Because it is a constitutional amendment, the initiative will need the support of 60 percent of voters to pass.
Desmond Meade, chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy and spokesperson for Second Chances Florida Campaign, said in a statement, “Voters took matters in their own hands to ensure that their fellow Floridians, family members, and friends who’ve made past mistakes, served their time and paid their debts to society are given a second chance and the opportunity to earn back their ability to vote.” Now that Second Chances Florida has successfully gathered the required number of petition signatures, the campaign is turning its efforts to ensuring that the initiative passes this autumn.
Meade, who is also the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the state director for the Florida Live Free Campaign, has a personal stake in Amendment 4’s success. The activist and law school graduate is, himself, fighting for the right to vote again after serving a sentence for a felony conviction in 2001. Meade appeared on Bee’s segment last year and, in that interview and elsewhere, has spoken persuasively about the unfairness of stripping citizens of voting rights for life after convictions for acts such as possessing more than 20 grams of marijuana or repeatedly driving with a suspended license.
Not only is restoring voting rights to individuals who have served their sentences fair; it will also give these individuals a stake in their communities, encouraging reintegration and likely reducing the rate of recidivism. Despite some opponents’ claims, this initiative should not be a matter of partisan politics. In fact, many Florida Republicans – including the author of this commentary – fully support Amendment 4. As I wrote last spring, there is no legal or moral justification for disenfranchising a segment of our population merely because we are afraid they might vote in a way we dislike.
I hope my fellow Floridians make the right call this November and bring Florida’s post-release treatment of felons in line with most of the rest of the country. As Meade put it, “We’re a step closer to bringing sunshine to the sunshine state.”