The fight to restore voting rights for those with a felony in their past has become a rapidly intensifying factor in shaping upcoming state elections. After an apparent political victory for Gov. Rick Scott’s cabinet, Democratic challengers are hitting back.
Scott and his cabinet member, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, are running for higher office in what promise to be contentious elections. There’s an energized democratic candidate for state attorney general in Sean Shaw vying for current AG Pam Bondi’s seat.
After a federal appellate court gave a favorable decision to the state’s Clemency Board by granting a stay on a lower court’s injunction, Democrats are centering their rally cry on a citizen’s initiative amendment.
Tallahassee Mayor and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum has tried to capitalize on the Clemency Board’s efforts to keep the current restoration system intact.
“Florida is just one of three states, one of three states that still has this kind of arcane, Jim Crow system of rights restoration, one of three states,” Gillum said.
Gillum filed a records request on Wednesday for all documents and communication explaining why the Clemency Board sought a stay on the injunction. During a speech from the Capitol steps this week, Gillum cast a wide net while trying to garner support for Amendment 4.
“This is not a black issue. The right to vote is not a black issue,” Gillum said. “We know that African Americans and people of color are disproportionately impacted, but the majority of the 1.7 million people in this state that have had their rights taken away, are white people.”
Another democrat in the gubernatorial race, Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, says he doesn’t think Scott’s actions will play well with the voters he’s met around the state.
“I got to tell you, everywhere I go from Pensacola to Key West, people believe in second chances – people believe felons should have their rights restored if they’ve paid their debt to society,” Levine said. “You know, it’s incredible, because the one thing people don’t like, they don’t like meanness. They don’t lie cruelty, they don’t like outright racism. And I think that this is a step backwards, kind of going back to the old Jim Crow laws.”
Democratic Representative Sean Shaw, who is campaigning for Attorney General, questions why Gov. Scott’s cabinet isn’t giving more consideration to a stance he thinks most Floridians take on the issue.
“It’s a system that, quite frankly, a majority of Floridians do not agree with. There’s a reason it’s going to be on the ballot, there’s a reason that the CRC is addressing it, there’s a reason all these people want to change how it’s done. Because a lot of Floridians, the majority of Floridians, believe we ought to do it differently,” Shaw said.
Desmond Meade has a very personal dog in this fight. After serving his time for a felony gun possession conviction, Meade experienced homelessness and other obstacles before getting his law degree and becoming a champion for the cause.
As president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Meade called for a stay to be put on the injunction in the days before the appellate court’s eleventh hour decision. He says he would rather not see the system get a facelift at the discretion of those who hold office.
“One of the main elements of that was that, taking the power to decide which American citizens get to vote and which American citizens don’t get to vote – taking that out of the hands of politicians,” Meade said.
Meade says the effort to overhaul the current restoration system transcends politics.
“We wanted to really make sure that we gave American citizens the opportunity to earn the eligibility to vote again,” Meade said. “Even though it says voting, it’s beyond politics, it’s beyond partisan lines, it’s beyond race.”
The battle for rights restoration is getting attention beyond Florida. Federal judge Mark Walker’s ruling in late March declaring the state’s system unconstitutional caught the eye of civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, who fired up a crowd of hundreds at the Capitol in support of Amendment 4.