If you committed a felony in the great state of Florida, good luck getting your voting rights back. Florida, along with Kentucky, Virginia and Iowa, makes it nearly impossible to regain civil rights if you’re a convicted felon, even though you’ve completed your sentence and “paid your debt to society.”
Now voters have the chance to help felons regain civil rights by voting yes on Amendment 4 on the November ballot.
“[Amendment 4] gives people back their power,” said Devan Cheaves, regional organizer for the Mid-Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “As voters, they have a say at the polls, and a voice in local decisions. When they can vote, they’re less likely to reoffend, so it has a rippling effect across the community.”
Many Floridians found the stringent requirements to regain rights after prison time anti-democratic. So, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the nonpartisan political committee behind the Amendment 4 ballot initiative, took to the streets in 2014 to raise awareness of the issue. They surpassed the required 766,200 signatures to put the proposed amendment on the November 2018 ballot, and it passed review by the Florida Supreme Court, a process required of all constitutional amendments.
Losing your civil rights means you can no longer vote, serve on a jury, run for office, become a notary public or carry a firearm. Across the U.S., about six million felons have lost their civil rights. Florida accounts for nearly 25 percent, or 1.6 million, which means one in 10 Floridians is shut out of our democracy.
But it seems we’re a forgiving bunch, because more than 70 percent of Florida voters support the amendment, making it a major issue on the upcoming ballot. In Florida alone, about 1.6 million ex-felons cannot vote — and about one in four are African American.
“Floridians believe in second chances, “ said Cheaves. “It’s powerful for felons to get their rights back and it will change the state for the better. I was surprised to find out even the Koch Brothers are supporting Amendment 4.”
Perhaps the financially savvy brothers saw a report from the Washington Economics Group of Coral Gables showing Florida has lost about $385 million a year in economic impact, including court and prison costs, while 3,500 offenders returned to prison, and 3,800 new jobs were lost.
In 2007, Governor Charlie Crist issued new Rules of Executive Clemency that restored voting rights to 150,000 disenfranchised Florida citizens. Even under Jeb Bush’s tough standards, 73,000 felons regained their rights.
One of those was Brian Evansen, who spent three years in prison for a marijuana conviction. He was one of the lucky ones who regained his voting rights with little trouble.
“I was released in 2001, and was on parole for six months,” he said. “When my parole was up, I applied to vote and they sent me a card.”
Evensen said most of the folks he met in prison were opposed to the Bushes and other GOP leaders.
“I think that’s why they don’t want to restore our rights because they know we won’t vote for them,” he said, referring to the conservatives who have governed Florida in recent years.
To wit: When Rick Scott became governor in 2010, he reversed Crist’s policy with the stroke of a pen, preventing people from applying for a waiver of the rules. Under Scott, felons must wait five to seven years before applying, and if there’s even a misdemeanor during that time, they’re disqualified.
By 2015, Scott’s administration had restored voting rights to maybe 2,000 ex-felons statewide, leaving more than 20,000 applicants in limbo and increasing disenfranchised Floridians by nearly 150,000, adding to an estimated total of 1,686,000.
Article VI of the current Florida constitution specifies no convicted felon can vote until civil rights are restored, but Amendment 4 adds this phrase to Section 4 of Article VI:
“Except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”
In plain English: If a felon is released from prison and completes all further requirements, like probation, rights are restored automatically. However, felons convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses still require a case-by-case review.
“It’s extremely important for voters to understand that in a democracy everyone needs to have a vote,” said Wendy Snyder of the Pinellas County Board of the ACLU. The ACLU sponsors Second Chance, the group of civic organizations supporting Amendment 4. “It’s truly a nonpartisan issue, supported by The League of Women Voters, ACLU, SEIU(Service Employees International Union) and the other groups working with the Second Chance coalition,” Snyder added.
To learn more about Amendment 4 and the Second Chance Coalition visit https://secondchancesfl.org/ where there are stories from ex-felons, a list of events and ways you can participate.