The deadline to register voters in Florida is just days away, but there’s a group of people who won’t be able to participate in this year’s election regardless of their Florida residency. They’re ex-felons who, upon their release from prison, do not have their voting rights automatically restored. Florida is one of a few states in the nation to have such a policy, and the NAACP is working with others in a national campaign to stop what they call “felony disenfranchisement.”
“Cell doors can open. We can be given release, but yet access is still denied,” said Reverend Greg James.
James is a former inmate who did time in federal prison. He’s now the Senior Pastor at Life Church International in Tallahassee. But, since his release in 2008, he has not had his civil rights restored, which includes the right to vote.
James is also a member of the Florida Restoration rights Coalition, a group that seeks to remove Governor Rick Scott’s current policy of not automatically restoring the civil rights of ex-felons who have already completed their sentences. He says he’s working in the North Florida region to contact about 2,000 inmates who don’t know they can vote in the coming election. And, he says the group is trying to contact thousands of others throughout the state of Florida:
“There are over 13,000 returning citizens back to society that have been given the right to vote, and they’re not aware of it," said James. "Right here in Tallahassee, we have a list of men and women who are coming out of prison, who are out, who have that right. And, we’re working to ensure those 13,000 in Florida, so that in the month of November, their voice can be heard.”
Under Governor Rick Scott, there are a series of steps those seeking to restore their rights must go through. That includes waiting five to seven years, depending on the offense, before they can submit an application to the state. Then, that application must be reviewed by the state’s Clemency Board, and even then, the answer may be “no.”
But, that wasn’t always the case. Under former Governor Charlie Crist, felons released from prison were able to have their civil rights restored. But, Florida Senator Arthenia Joyner, a Democrat from Tampa, says that all changed when Scott took office.
“Why the long waiting period," asked Joyner. "The Governor claimed it seemed reasonable! Reasonable? Reasonable because too many ex-offenders are turning to a life of crime or reasonable because the GOP is trying to stack the deck against Democratic candidates.”
Joyner claims Republican leadership saw a trend of ex-offenders voting Democratic, and led by Governor Scott, the Florida Cabinet, all Republicans, agreed to change the rules. She says she’s frustrated because she helped with the push to restore civil rights to ex-felons under Crist. And, she says there is nothing that really suggests ex-felons will return to a life of crime.
“No compelling evidence of the former," Joyner exclaimed. "And, keep in mind, most of them are nonviolent individuals. They may have written a bad check or may have had one or two grams of marijuana in their pockets.”
Scott’s policy makes Florida one of four states that does not automatically restore the civil rights of ex-felons. And, the national chapter of the NAACP, or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says that’s not right.
So, Ben Jealous, the civil rights group’s President, recently launched a national campaign to advocate for the rights of former inmates of all races. It’s to make more people aware of the issue and Jealous says maybe even sway the minds of Governors who still have the policies in place.
“So, we’re seeking to push that conversation, get folks to understand what these laws are, why they were put in place, and who they impact and move out country forward," said Jealous. "And, I think it’s worth pointing out that while black people are disproportionately impacted, the numbers of blacks and whites impacted are roughly the same nationally.”
The campaign, launched in Florida, includes billboards of people who’ve served time in prison. It says phrases, like: “They made mistakes, they did their time, they deserve the right to vote.” Also, involved in the campaign are TV celebrities, like Judge Greg Mathis and Actor Charles Dutton, who both served time in prison before the launching their careers.
Dutton was released from prison in 1976, but he only received the right to vote in 2007. Dutton says it’s frustrating, that people like him, have to wait so long----in his case, more than 30 years---to vote after they’ve paid their dues to society. He says that’s the main reason he agreed to the campaign:
"Frankly, I’m a little pissed off, putting it bluntly," remarked Dutton. "So, I know it’s a little late in the game for this particular election, but I’m just hoping that we can get ground swell of a movement started. So, the next time around, in all of those remaining states that have those laws, that people can see, you can’t talk rehabilitation at one time in your states, and then, at the same time, talk at the side of your mouth, that we’ll release them, but we won’t allow them to vote.”
The billboards were unveiled Friday in states that still do not automatically restore ex-offenders voting rights. That includes Florida, along with Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky. Currently, millions of people in those states are affected by the policy, with close to a million in Florida alone.
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