by Sheila Payne, ACLC Board Member
Members of Alachua County civil rights activist groups and faith community members are in the midst of helping to collect the almost 800,000 valid signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the 2018 Florida ballot to restore voting rights to the 1.7 million citizens who are no longer able to vote because of a past felony conviction. We are pushing to collect all the signatures by Dec. 31, 2017 for verification by February 2018. Sixty percent of 2018 voters would have to vote yes to the amendment for it to become law.
Florida’s Voting Restoration Amendment would allow people who did not commit a violent felony and have paid their debt to society, including completing probation, to again be voting citizens and full members of their community.
Florida has the highest voter disenfranchisement rate in the country. Florida is one of only three states that imposes a lifetime felon voting ban. Florida, Iowa and Kentucky are the only states where felony convictions permanently strip citizens of voting rights pending elusive clemency hearings. Even after felons in Florida have served their time, including probation they must wait at least five years to start the laborious clemency process.
The citizens who want to regain their voting rights must petition the Board of Executive Clemency, which consists of Gov. Scott and three elected Cabinet members, to consider their Voting Rights Restoration case. The board meets quarterly, considering fewer than 100 cases each time. There are more than 20,000 pending cases before the Florida board. Iowa granted 93 percent of clemency hearings, Kentucky granted 86 percent and Florida granted 8 percent.
Half of the felonies in Florida do not result in prison time and can include driving with a suspended license, trespassing on a construction site and, of course, lots of drug cases. Is an action which the state does not deem serious enough for prison time justify having a citizen’s right to vote for elective representation permanently revoked?
Many of us have stories of going into Alachua County communities to knock on doors for a candidate for public office or standing outside a local library to participate in voter registration drives and having person after person tell us that they cannot vote because of an offense they committed years, sometimes decades, before.
Many of these people want to vote; they have expressed how they want their children to see them doing their civic duty and to be part of the political process. They see restoration of their voting rights and engagement in their community as part of their own redemption. Some people take for granted their right to vote, but many of us feel that it is our most basic right as a U.S. citizen and should not be so cavalierly kept away from so many.
If you feel that an injustice has been done to many Floridians who have turned their lives around, and who want to fully re-join society, if you believe in Second Chances, join us. If you would like to help gather signatures with the many members of local groups such as the Alachua County Labor Coalition; Say Yes to Second Chances Alachua, Putnam and Bradford Counties; NAACP; the League of Women Voters; and others, or would like someone from our speakers bureau to present to your organization, please contact the Alachua County Labor Coalition at 352-375-2832 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also go to http://laborcoalition.org/ to download a petition to mail in. Contact information for the groups listed above can be found on Facebook.