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Will Convicted Felons Vote In Florida Soon?

The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments about a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow felons to vote again.

Will convicted felons be allowed to vote again in Florida after completing their sentences?

That is the subject of a proposed constitutional amendment that could go to voters as early as the 2018 general election. Monday, the Florida Supreme Court reviewed the language of that amendment, moving it one step closer to the ballot.

People with felony convictions automatically lose their right to vote in Florida and it’s pretty hard to get that right back

Roughly 1.7 million people in Florida, or 10 percent of the population, do not have the right to vote due to criminal convictions according to The Sentencing Project, a group that focuses on prison reform. Compare that to 2 percent of the nation’s population that is disenfranchised. 

Now in Florida people who serve their time can apply to have their voting rights restored through the discretionary executive clemency process, but it takes years and few people actually go through that process and win.

But a petition that was circulated throughout Florida got enough signatures that it moved a step closer to get on the ballot in 2018.

The Florida Supreme Court reviews every potential constitutional amendment that comes through citizen petition, like this one, to make sure it meets all the legal requirements of a constitutional amendment, not whether it is good or bad policy.

The constitutional amendment would allow felons to have their voting rights restored after successful completion of their sentence, including the payment of fines and fees. People convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense would not qualify for the automatic restoration of voting rights. These people would have to go through the clemency process all felons have to go through now.

The Florida Attorney General’s Office took no position on the measure and justices didn’t seem to have any problems with the matter at hand, despite speculating about  some of the challenges in legislating this amendment: What the process would be to appeal a determination of completion of a sentence and what it means to fully complete a sentence.

"We're talking about things that really;  the details are not part of what anyone's saying are confusing," said Justice Barbara Pariente from the bench to the lawyer arguing in support of the initiative. "So we're asking you some questions that maybe still have to be ironed out, which is not unusual with these ballot initiatives."

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Desmond Meade talks after oral arguments at the Florida Supreme Court.

Desmond Meade, a Florida International University J.D. recipient, was convicted of criminal drug and firearm possession and was unsuccessful in getting his right to vote restored. He is chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which has been working to get the petition on the ballot.

“In spite of whatever obstacles I’ve been able to overcome, the accomplishments that I’ve made, dedicated my life to giving back to the community, you know, I’m still being told that I’m not a full American citizen and my voice is forever barred,” said Meade. “A lot of people have just give up hope. You know,I’ve had a lady speak to me. She thinks she’s going to die before she gets to vote again.”

After the justices clear the amendment,  the measure will have to get more than 700,000 signatures to be put  on the ballot—at least 8 percent of the number of people who voted in the previous general election.

Also on Monday, the Florida Senate Committee on Criminal Justice postponed debate on a bill that would have created a very similar automatic rights restoration process. That bill would restore rights beyond voting rights, including the ability to run for public office and serve on a jury. It would not automatically restore the right to possess a firearm, however. Like the proposed constitutional amendment, the bill has an exemption for certain crimes like murder and various sexual assault convictions.

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