Felons' Voting Rights Initiative Qualifies For 2018 Ballot

Jan 23, 2018

This November Floridians will decide whether felons should get their voting rights back. After activists gathered over one million petitions, the constitutional amendment has qualified for the 2018 ballot. The state currently disenfranchises about 1.6 million people, almost 10% of the voting age population.

Credit redjar via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/redjar/

Desmond Meade has done it, along with the support of Florida advocates and volunteers, national heavy hitters like the American Civil Liberties Union, and celebrities John Legend and Lady Gaga. A plan to restore felons’ voting rights, after they complete parole and probation, is heading to the 2018 ballot. Meade, who heads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, thanked supporters in an emotional video posted to Facebook Tuesday.

“No one thought we would get here. But we’re here! We’re one step closer, we’re one step closer to liberating and giving over 1.68 million people a shot at redemption, a shot at restoration,” Meade said.

The campaign has come a long way since protesting outside of the attorney general’s office in 2014.

“Whoever they vote for, it don’t matter, just as long as they have the opportunity to vote. And we made it. We made it to this threshold. And we got one more step to go,” Meade said.

After the 2016 election, the issue took on a new significance. High profile national outlets picked it up. The New York Times Editorial Board wrote an op-ed. That’s because this change could have national implications. If Floridians approve the plan, an estimated 1.6 million people in the nation’s largest swing state would be in line to get their rights back.

Daniel Smith is a political scientist at the University of Florida. He says even if a fraction of felons were able to vote, they could make a difference.

“Again, that’s kind of a bigger question right now, in terms of what is the impact going to be. But if we have elections in this state that are being decided by 100,000 votes, I certainly think that 1 in 16 is a viable number in terms of those who are eligible to have their rights restored actually getting registered to vote and turning out,” Smith said.

But Myrna Pérez with the Brennan Center for Justice says the campaign isn’t about political gain, it’s a moral issue. The center, which is based at the New York University Law School, has published reports on the issue and donated tens of thousands of dollars to the campaign.

“For me the issue is not voting outcomes. We are a non-profit organization that focuses on voters and voting rights,” Pérez said.

Like the rights of Neil Volz. He’s a spokesperson with Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the organization behind the campaign. But he’s also a felon hoping to vote again.

“In 2010-11, I submitted some paperwork to get my rights restored, and the process was very cumbersome. The system’s just broken,” Volz said.

Volz ultimately gave up on the current process, and started trying to change it.

“I got frustrated and realized that I wasn’t alone, that there were people, Floridians from all over the state that are impacted by these policies,” he said.

Comedian Samantha Bee of TBS' Full Frontal takes a look at Florida's disenfranchisement of felons.

Currently Florida has some of the strictest laws in the nation. Once they serve their time, felons must wait between five to seven years before they can even apply for restoration. Then, one by one, they have to ask the governor and his cabinet for their rights back. Pérez at the Brennan Center says Florida should get in step with the rest of the country.     

“You have Maine and Vermont which allow people to vote while they’re in prison. But you have other states on the other extreme which do not give you your right to vote back unless the government specifically pardons you. Florida is among those outliers and no other state disenfranchises the number of people that Florida does," she said.

Political scientist Daniel Smith says the constitutional amendment has a decent chance at passing. Besides the fact that an estimated one million people already pledged their support for the measure, he says it's likely the issue will bring voters to the polls who might not otherwise.

“We know that that electorate tends to be a little more conservative than general election presidential votes. But 2018 could be very different. We know that there’s a lot of excitement among progressives and on the left,” Smith said.

It’ll be up to Floridians to decide during this year’s midterm elections. 60% of voters will have to approve the plan in order for it to pass.