Florida voters will have a chance to restore voting rights to more than 1 million former felons through a ballot initiative this November.
The proposed constitutional amendment on Tuesday reached the 766,200 petition signatures required to go on the ballot. The Voting Restoration Amendment, which the state is expected to certify soon, would automatically restore rights to citizens convicted of felonies who have completed their prison sentence, parole, and probation. Only those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses would be excluded.
If approved with 60 percent of the vote in November, the amendment has the potential to reshape electoral politics in Florida, a critical swing state, and set the example for other states grappling with whether to relax strict laws prohibiting people with criminal convictions from voting. Florida currently has one of the strictest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country — only Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, and Iowa permanently bar those with felony convictions from voting for life, unless they seek clemency. In total, roughly 1.6 million Florida citizens — about one in four African Americans — are barred from casting a ballot.
Sheena Meade, organizing director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition which led the initiative to gather more than a million signatures, told ThinkProgress that getting the amendment certified is a “huge accomplishment for the people of Florida.”
“Knowing that we’ve actually sent in over a million petitions and that people have answered the call to have a more inclusive democracy is just overwhelming,” Meade said. “People never thought we would get to this place, and now it’s actually here.”
Meade’s husband, Desmond Meade, has been fighting for changes to the state’s rights restoration process since he was convicted of a felony over a decade ago. In 2016, Sheena Meade ran for the state legislature and Desmond was unable to vote for his wife.
The certification of the amendment will comes less than a year after the Florida Supreme Court approved the ballot language in April 2017. In the months since, Floridians for a Fair Democracy and other groups supporting the amendment have benefited from over $500,000 in support, including $400,000 from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Currently, Florida citizens with criminal convictions who want to restore their voting rights have to apply for clemency with the governor. During his term, former Gov. Charlie Crist made it easier for former felons to regain their rights, restoring the right to vote to more than 155,000 felons. But current Gov. Rick Scott (R) reversed course in 2011 and mandated a waiting period before felons could even apply for clemency. Just a few thousand people have regained their voting rights since Scott took office in 2010.
The state’s strict disenfranchisement law dates back to the post-Civil War era when politicians were more overt about wanting to keep black residents from gaining political power. Since then, the law has been used to keep millions of Democratic-leaning voters from participating in the electoral process.
According to the Sentencing Project, “approximately 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population — 1 of every 40 adults — is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.” The state of Florida alone accounts for 27 percent of the disenfranchised population nationally.
While research shows that people with criminal convictions tend to vote for Democratic candidates, the amendment in Florida has had bipartisan support. An analysis released shortly before the 2016 election found that if Floridians with felony convictions were allowed to register to vote, an estimated 258,060 would register as Democrats, 46,920 as Republicans, and 84,456 as independent and third party. And nearly 60,000 additional ballots would have been cast.
“We don’t care about how people vote,” Desmond Meade said. “We just care about them having the opportunity to vote.”
Meade said he feels confident that that can be a reality after November.
“Forgiveness is something that’s inherent in everyone,” he said. “All we have to do is educate people.”