Ballot amendment on restoring felon voting rights gains support

By Troy Kinsey, Reporter
Last Updated: Monday, February 05, 2018, 9:30 PM EST

Three days after the Florida Department of State certified a ballot amendment that would automatically restore the voting rights of 1.5 million felons who have served their sentences, two Democratic members of a powerful state panel who had been working on a similar proposal threw their support behind it.

  • Florida among states that do not grant felons right to vote following completion of sentences
  • Gov. Scott, state clemency board overturned automatically restoring voting rights in 2011
  • Aggressive campaigns for/against Amendment 4 expected

The Democrats -- former state Sens. Arthenia Joyner and Chris Smith -- serve on the Constitution Revision Commission, which meets once every 20 years to debate proposed amendments it is empowered to put before voters. Their proposal was virtually identical to the amendment drafted by Floridians for Fair Democracy that, as the result of a successful petition collection campaign, will appear on Florida's November ballot as Amendment 4.

"It's amazing what can get done when you're not worried about who gets the credit," Smith said at a Friday press conference in Tallahassee.

Florida is among a handful of states that don't grant felons the right to vote upon completion of their sentences.

Landmark reforms spearheaded by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 automatically restored the rights of hundreds of thousands of Floridians convicted of non-violent felonies, but the reforms were overturned by Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Clemency Board in 2011. The stricter rules, Scott argued at the time, were necessary for the state to evaluate whether felons have proven themselves responsible members of society deserving of the right to vote.

Now, felons must wait between five and seven years to petition the Clemency Board for rights restoration. Under Scott's leadership, as of December 2015, the board had restored the rights of fewer than 2,000 felons, with 20,000 applications left pending.

Smith suggested the governor - who could himself appear on the ballot should he launch a U.S. Senate campaign - will play a central role in what is expected to be a multi-million dollar campaign urging passage of Amendment 4.

"He's exhibit A as to why we need this, when you look at the number of people he's turned down that have taken the time to fill out their applications, that have taken the time to go and get all the documentation, that have taken the time to come and stand before the Cabinet, and to arbitrarily tell them 'no,' he's exhibit one as to why citizens need to vote for this," Smith said.

But the Democrats also predicted the development of an aggressive campaign to defeat the amendment, which by law must receive at least 60 percent voter approval to pass. Because the felons who would be eligible for automatic rights restoration are disproportionately Democratic-leaning African-Americans, they argued, Republicans will have an urgent political incentive to convince Floridians to vote no.

"They will maybe try to play the Willie Horton thing," Joyner said, referring to the successful Republican attack ads that tied 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis to a furloughed prisoner.

"These people have fulfilled their obligation to society, they've paid their dues, they've paid restitution, they've done everything the law requires, and so, we've just got to sell it."