Where We Stand:
Florida must restore vote to ex-felons.
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.