Petition Drive for Felon Voting Initiative Enters Final Month with Momentum

A 2011 NAACP and Occupy Wall Street voting rights march in midtown Manhattan. (Unmodified Creative Commons photo by Michael Fleshman.

Throughout the United States, felon voting rights vary state by state but within the past decade Florida has become the national leader in disenfranchising anyone convicted of a felony.

Between 1980 to 2017, the percent of disenfranchised felons in Florida has increased from 2.6 percent to 10.4 percent of the state’s adult citizens and the state accounts for 27 percent of the national disenfranchised population, according to The Sentencing Project.

Florida’s high disenfranchisement rate is the results of one the harshest restoration processes in the country which is now receiving growing attention as the movement to restore felon voting rights increases.

For the 2018 election, a proposed state constitutional amendment may appear on the Florida Ballot. The amendment known as The Florida Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative is currently gathering signatures ahead of a February 1 deadline.

The proposed ballot summary states:

“This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.”

Florida hasn’t always been in the spotlight for their restrictive restoration process. In 2011, the rules of Executive Clemency were changed and enacted a stricter procedure that put the burden on the felon and rids the states’ prior legislation of automatic restoration.

The new rules say all felons must undergo a minimum of a five-year waiting period after completion of their sentence, parole, and probation before they can apply. Repeat offenders, or offenders who’ve committed certain crimes such as murder, must wait seven years. After their waiting period, felons apply individually to the Clemency Board to determine restoration of their voting rights.

As the disenfranchised population in Florida grew to 1.7 million people in 2017, the number of people who received restoration under the new rules dropped to only 8 percent. The number of disenfranchised felons also totaled about 22 percent of Florida’s African-American population.

Explanations for Florida’s rather high number of disenfranchised voters derive from issues such as the state’s classification of felony crimes which are generally misdemeanors in other states and the long-lasting effects of the War on Drugs which has targeted Florida’s poorer populations.

As the deadline for the amendment looms, the opinions of this change vary just as much as state laws regarding restoration.

Supporters of the amendment have argued that this is a chance to give a “second chance” and that the outreach has the prospect to break the stigmas around felons and create lasting change in the restoration procedure which could help guide felons back into a normal life.

Opponents to the amendment don’t disagree with the principles of helping felons reintegrate into society. But, they oppose the amendment’s blanket initiative which only exempts those charged with murder or felony sexual assault offenses from being able to obtain their right to vote.

The amendment would work by enacting automatic restorations without reviews of the individual cases, thus turning some people away due to the broad scope process.

The initiative currently has 662,396 signatures, or 87 percent of the need 766,000 signatures need to be placed on the November 2018 Florida ballot.

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