Florida voters will be asked to restore felon voting rights

By BRENDAN FARRINGTON, Associated Press
Headline Goes Here Michael Reaves/Getty Images

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Former felons could have their Florida voting rights restored under a proposed constitutional amendment headed to voters in November, a measure that could have a significant impact on a state known for historically close elections.

Floridians for a Fair Democracy has more than 799,000 certified petition signatures, or about 33,000 more than the group needed to get the measure on the ballot. The group estimates about 1.5 million ex-felons would have their voting rights restored if voters approve. The measure needs 60 percent voter approval for passage.

Desmond Meade, the group's chairman, lauded those voters whose overwhelming support for the petition, put the measure on the ballot.

"Voters took matters in their own hands to ensure that their fellow Floridians, family members, and friends who've made past mistakes, served their time and paid their debts to society are given a second chance and the opportunity to earn back their ability to vote," Meade said.

Democrats and voting rights groups have long pressed for the restoration of felon voting rights.

Florida's ban on ex-felon voting - along with a voting list purge that took some non-felons of voting rolls - likely cost then-Vice President Al Gore the 2000 presidential election. Republican George W. Bush won Florida that year, and thus the White House, by 537 votes in an election that took five weeks to sort out.

And without the ban, Florida's presidential election could have had a different outcome last year. President Donald Trump carried Florida with fewer than 50 percent of the vote, beating Hillary Rodham Clinton 49 percent to 47.8 percent.

Before the 2000 election, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris hired a company to purge felons from the state's voting lists. But the process was flawed and many eligible voters were removed from rolls because of mistaken identity. Others were convicted of misdemeanors and not felonies.

Florida's current process for restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences is a slow one. It requires a hearing, and applicants are often denied. If voters approve the amendment, felons would have their voting rights restored once they've concluded their sentences. Felons convicted of murder or sex offenses wouldn't be eligible.

Shortly after taking office in 2007, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist convinced two of the state's three Cabinet members to approve rules that would allow the parole commission to restore voting rights for non-violent felons without a hearing. Within a year, more than 100,000 ex-felons were granted voting rights.

But Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet ended automatic restoration of voting rights as one of Scott's first acts upon taking office in 2011.

"The governor has been clear that the most important thing to him is that felons can show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities," Scott spokeswoman Kerri Wyland said in an email.

Crist, now a Democratic U.S. representative, was joyful when told that the initiative will be on the ballot.

"That's great! That's wonderful!" he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

Crist was one of the exceptions among Republicans in supporting felon voting rights restorations. Politically, felon voting rights restoration is seen as benefiting Democrats, largely because African-Americans are disproportionally affected by the ban, and they tend to overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.

"I thought it was very important to make a statement about how Florida has progressed and come into the modern era. Who among us doesn't deserve a second chance," Crist said.

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