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Courtesy:  Kira LernerKira Lerner:
Political Reporter at ThinkProgress.

Florida voters could restore voting rights   to almost 2 million felons in 2018!

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Ex-felons call attention to their lack of voting rights in a demonstration in Florida.
Credit:   AP Photo/J. Pat Carter

More than 1.6 million former felons could have their right to vote restored in 2018, when Florida voters could have the opportunity to reverse the state’s policy of permanently disenfranchising anyone with a felony conviction.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday, April 20, 2017, that the Voting Restoration Amendment, the proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore felons’ voting rights, follows the guidelines outlined in the state constitution.  “We approve the amendment for placement on the ballot,” the court wrote. If it is able to get hundreds of thousands more signatures, the amendment will appear on the ballot, where it will need 60 percent approval to pass.

In early March, the state’s highest court held a hearing in which attorney Jon Mills, representing Floridians for a Fair Democracy, claimed that the amendment meets the requirements to be put on the ballot. “The question would have to be, ‘have you completed all the terms of your sentence?”‘ he said, explaining how the state’s voter registration form could easily be changed from asking citizens about any felony convictions to asking whether the voter has completed his or her sentence.

Solicitor General Amit Agarwal said Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) is taking no position on the issue.  Florida currently has one of the strictest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country — only Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, and Iowa permanently bar those with felony convictions from voting – for life – unless they seek clemency.  The clemency process in Florida is notoriously difficult. During his term, former Gov. Charlie Crist made it easier for former felons to regain their rights, restoring the right to vote to more than 155,000 felons. But current Gov. Rick Scott (R) reversed that change in 2011 and mandated a waiting period before felons could even apply for clemency. Just 2,487 people have regained their voting rights since Scott took office in 2010.

Floridians for a Fair Democracy Chair, Demond Meade, is one of the more than one and a half million Floridians who cannot vote in elections, including last year’s election when his wife ran for state legislature.   “In 2008, it hurt not to be able to be a part of a historic election, but I have even more pain now because I can’t even vote for my own wife,” he told ThinkProgress before Florida’s primary in March 2016. “It’s un-American and totally unfair! I should have that right!”

Florida’s disenfranchisement law dates back to the post-Civil War era when the state specifically wanted to keep black residents from gaining political power. Voting advocates have pointed to its racist past in pushing for a legal change, arguing that former felons are better able to reintegrate into society when they are able to regain their rights.

Meade has been active in pushing for the ballot initiative, which would require 600,000 signatures to appear on the ballot. If Floridians for a Fair Democracy reached that mark and the Supreme Court approved its language, the measure would appear on the 2018 ballot. In order to pass, it would need 60 percent support.  If approved, Florida would be joining a growing list of states making it easier for people with felony convictions to vote. According to the Sentencing Project, 23 states have expanded their voter eligibility laws to include more former felons, and an estimated 840,000 citizens have regained their right to vote.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe(D) has worked to ease his state’s restrictions, restoring voting rights to 140,000 people, considering them on a case-by-case basis. But his executive order which attempted to automatically restore rights to even more people en masse was invalidated by the state supreme court.  At the time, President Trump accused McAuliffe of “crooked politics.”  “They’re giving 200,000 people that have been convicted of heinous crimes, horrible crimes, the worst crimes, the right to vote because, you know what? They know they’re gonna vote Democrat,” said the then-Republican presidential candidate.

In total, 6.1 million Americans, mostly from Democratic-leaning groups, are barred from voting due to felon disenfranchisement laws. An analysis released shortly before the 2016 election found that if Floridians with felony convictions were allowed to register, an estimated 258,060 would sign up as Democrats, 46,920 as Republicans, and 84,456 as independent and third party. And nearly 60,000 additional ballots would have been cast.

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