Come November, Floridians will go to the polls to decide whether former felons should more easily regain their voting rights.
According to one estimate — by the nonprofit Sentencing Project — about 6.1 million people are forbidden to vote around the nation because of a felony conviction. And Florida is home to a quarter of them.
If the referendum passes, it can have profound implications for the critical swing state. The 2000 presidential election, for instance, was decided by 537 votes in Florida.
A long battle
The battle to get the proposed amendment on the ballot wasn’t easy.
Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the organization behind it, said it took more than two years.
Last week, the state approved the Voting Restoration Amendment as a ballot initiative. It needed 766,200 petition signatures to appear, and the state decided that the effort surpassed it.
“The gravity of what has just been accomplished has not sunken in yet,” said Desmond Meade, the group’s chairman.
Meade, is an ex-felon who went on to earn a law degree. He had to wait three years to get his voting rights restored. The Orlando resident was convicted of drug and firearm charges in 2001.
An overwhelmed Meade said that the people who signed this petition understand the concept of forgiveness.
“We are a nation of second chances,” he said.
What will change
What happens to a person convicted of a felony varies from state to state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
- In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose the right to vote
- In 14 states and Washington, D.C., they lose their rights only while incarcerated.
- In 22 states, they lose their rights until they complete the terms of their sentence, such as parole.
Florida is among the states where rights aren’t restored automatically.
There, a person who’s finished his sentence, completed their parole and paid any fines they had to pay would still not win back the right by default. They have to apply to the governor for clemency, but they can only do that after a waiting period. In the end, it’s up to the governor. This was Meade’s case.
So clemency will no longer be required: The amendment, if it passes, will restore a felon’s voting rights after he or she complete their full sentence, including fines, probation and parole. The exceptions: murderers and sex offenders. They won’t regain their rights.
“This is an encouraging step in the right direction,” said Myrna Pérez, the deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “This amendment is needed to move Florida more to the mainstream.”
Meade said the Brennan Center provided a level of expertise through this campaign that his organization found to be very valuable. They were helpful in getting the necessary research done.