Where We Stand:

Florida must re­store vote to ex-felons.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE -

Try to imag­ine the up­roar if ev­ery sin­gle ac­tive reg­is­tered voter in Or­ange, Osce­ola, Semi­nole and Lake coun­ties were turned away at the polls. Yet that’s the equiv­a­lent ef­fect of Florida’s hard­line pol­icy against vot­ing by ex-felons, which has dis­en­fran­chised al­most 1.6 mil­lion peo­ple in the state.

Civil rights ac­tivists have been work­ing dili­gently to give Florida vot­ers the op­por­tu­nity to over­turn this puni­tive pol­icy, but it’s a long, hard — and ex­pen­sive — slog. It’s much eas­ier for a state panel to clear the way to right this his­tor­i­cal wrong.

A throw­back to the Civil War

Florida’s pol­icy forces ex-felons who want to re­gain their right to vote to wait at least five years after they have com­pleted their sen­tences, then apply to have their rights re­stored by the gover­nor and the Cab­i­net. They meet just four times a year as the Board of Ex­ec­u­tive Clemency to con­sider ap­pli­ca­tions on a case-by-case ba­sis, nor­mally re­view­ing fewer than 100 cases per meet­ing. The board has a wait­ing list more than 20,000 peo­ple long.

Those who would de­fend this pol­icy might not be aware that Florida is an out­lier. Only two other states, Iowa and Ken­tucky, now bar for­mer felons from vot­ing. Na­tion­wide, 5.8 mil­lion ex-felons are dis­en­fran­chised, so Florida alone ac­counts for more than a quar­ter of the to­tal.

Florida’s pol­icy dates back to the years after the Civil War, when it was en­acted to push back against a fed­eral law that forced states to grant blacks the right to vote. Even to­day, a cen­tury and a half later, Florida’s pol­icy bars more than a fifth of the state’s African-Amer­i­can vot­ing-age pop­u­la­tion from cast­ing bal­lots.

A group called Florid­i­ans for a Fair Democ­racy is spear­head­ing a statewide pe­ti­tion drive to over­turn the pol­icy by putting a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment on the 2018 bal­lot. The amend­ment would re­store vot­ing rights to ex-felons, ex­cept for those who have com­mit­ted mur­der or sex crimes, once they have fully com­pleted their sen­tences, in­clud­ing pa­role and pro­ba­tion.

But the group needs to gather at least 766,200 sig­na­tures and get them ver­i­fied by Feb. 1. As of Wednesday, its pe­ti­tion drive was still more than 500,000 sig­na­tures short of its goal. Col­lect­ing enough sig­na­tures to get other con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments on the bal­lot has cost back­ers mil­lions of dol­lars. The odds are still against the group meet­ing its goal by the dead­line.

Up­hold­ing an en­dur­ing prin­ci­ple

Mean­while, how­ever, Florida’s Con­sti­tu­tion Re­vi­sion Com­mis­sion has be­gun sort­ing through pro­pos­als for amend­ments after field­ing them in pub­lic hear­ings it held through­out the state over the past sev­eral months. The 37-mem­ber panel meets once ev­ery 20 years to con­sider changes to Florida’s gov­ern­ing le­gal doc­u­ment. The com­mis­sion is sched­uled to pro­duce a short list of pro­posed amend­ments by May for in­clu­sion on the 2018 bal­lot.

Two of the com­mis­sion’s mem­bers, for­mer state Sens. Chris Smith and Arthe­nia Joyner, have filed a pro­posal sim­i­lar to the one that Florid­i­ans for a Fair Democ­racy is pro­mot­ing. Their pro­posal will need the sup­port of 22 com­mis­sion­ers to make next year’s bal­lot, a much eas­ier hill to climb than ver­i­fied sig­na­tures from 766,200 Florid­i­ans.

Smith and Joyner, both Democrats, will need to con­vince enough of their fel­low com­mis­sion­ers on the Repub­li­can-dom­i­nated panel that their pro­posal would align Florida with al­most ev­ery other state in the na­tion, both red and blue. Skep­tics shouldn’t let any tran­si­tory par­ti­san con­sid­er­a­tions trump the en­dur­ing prin­ci­ple that ex-felons who have paid their debt to so­ci­ety have earned the op­por­tu­nity to re-in­te­grate by ex­er­cis­ing the right to vote.

As Joyner told the News Ser­vice of Florida, the cur­rent pol­icy “dis­pro­por­tion­ately im­pacts lower- and mid­dle-in­come Florid­i­ans — many of them sen­tenced for non-vi­o­lent crimes — and con­tin­ues to seg­re­gate them from fully par­tic­i­pat­ing in the democ­racy we cel­e­brate. This needs to end.”

The best hope for bringing it to an end rests with the Con­sti­tu­tion Re­vi­sion Com­mis­sion.

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