The effort to restore voting rights to roughly 1.5 million former felons in Florida gained significant momentum this week when the state certified the Voting Restoration Amendment, meaning voters will see the initiative on the ballot in November. In order to pass, the amendment will need 60 percent approval.
Because of the makeup of the Florida electorate, voters from both parties will need to support the amendment to reach that number. For that reason, advocates like Desmond Meade, a disenfranchised ex-felon who is leading the initiative, are framing the issue as one of forgiveness and justice.
“Forgiveness is something that’s inherent in everyone,” Meade told ThinkProgress.
Democrats have led on recent efforts to end felon disenfranchisement policies in states including Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida — the groups most helped by those efforts tend to vote Democratic. But Meade and other advocates are pushing to keep the issue away from politics, and Republican lawmakers are jumping on board.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a congressman who represents south Florida, is so far the most vocal GOP voice supporting the amendment. The lawmaker developed his opinion on rights restoration through conversations with voters in his district back in 2016, a spokesperson for his office told ThinkProgress.
“After studying the issue, he realized many of these Floridians have paid their debt to society, chosen a new path and are now contributing to our local community and state in a positive way,” said Joanna Rodriguez, Curbelo’s communications director. “He felt it was important for the people of Florida to consider restoring them as equal partners in our democracy, and is proud to have helped get it on the ballot.”
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.
In recent years, Republicans have opposed efforts to restore voting rights to those who have completed their sentences because of the impact those votes would have on elections. In Virginia, Republican lawmakers filed suit against former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe when he tried to use an executive order to reinstate rights to more than 200,000 people who had completed their sentences. The state GOP said the effort was clearly intended to boost then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and President Trump claimed the move was “crooked politics.” Republican governors in Iowa and Kentucky have also recently rescinded orders by their Democratic predecessors that made the rights restoration process easier.
In several states, GOP politicians have argued these Democratic efforts to restore voting rights are unconstitutional. But studies also show that their rationale is likely political, as the people these policies would help are more apt to vote for Democratic candidates. Black people are disproportionately convicted of felonies in the United States, and black voters are more likely to register as Democrats. 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. After Alabama changed its law to allow tens of thousands of people with criminal records to vote for the first time this year, record numbers of black voters cast ballots, helping tip the close special election to Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL).
But Curbelo, bucking his party, insists that politics should not play into the debate. “As with most issues in this current landscape, the congressman believes it is disappointing and irresponsible for both sides to turn this into a political issue,” Rodriguez said. “Voters have a right to weigh in on this topic and if it passes it should be on the merits of the proposal, not the politics.”
The leading Republican in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, does not agree with Curbelo. During his eight years in office, Scott has made it significantly harder for people with felony convictions to restore their voting rights. While former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, granted clemency to more than 155,000 ex-felons, Scott reversed course when he took office in 2011 and mandated a five-year waiting period before ex-felons could even apply for clemency. Just a few thousand people have regained their voting rights during Scott’s two terms, and there’s a backlog of roughly 12,000 people waiting to have their cases heard. The clemency board meets just four times per year and hears, on average, 50 to 70 cases. Approximately half the cases are approved, making Florida’s clemency process one of the most stringent in the nation.
After the Voting Restoration Amendment qualified for the ballot on Tuesday, a spokesperson in Scott’s office told ThinkProgress that the governor would not be taking a side on the ballot measure.
“This is a decision for each voter to decide on,” said spokesperson Kerri Wyland. “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.”
That answer “doesn’t ring true,” given Scott’s actions, said Darryl Paulson, a conservative expert in Florida politics who has served as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and, until recently, was a member of the the Republican Party. Paulson is a supporter of the Voting Restoration Amendment, a position he said is based on conservative principles.
“What the party of Lincoln ought to be doing is to make sure that everyone, including African Americans, has an equal opportunity to participate in the political process,” said Paulson, a retired professor of government at the University of South Florida. “That certainly has not been the case in Florida.”
“I just think it’s an extraordinarily conservative thing to do — I don’t look at it as a liberal thing — to support voter equality,” he added.
Paulson said restoring rights makes sense for a number of reasons rooted in conservative values, including the desire to lower the crime rate. The Florida Parole Commission found in a 2011 study that for ex-felons who have their civil rights restored, the recidivism rate was 11 percent. For those that did not have their rights restored, the rate was 33 percent — three times as high.
“If conservatives really want to cut back on crime and get people returned as tax-paying members of society, the best way to do it is to restore the felon vote,” he said.
His opinion on rights restoration is shared by a number of conservative-aligned groups for economic and public safety reasons, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Koch Foundation, and Florida Tax Watch. Representatives for those organizations were not immediately available for comment.
So far, most of the financial support for the initiative has come from liberal-leaning groups. As of January 1, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the group leading the effort, has received just short of $5 million in outside contributions. Most of that money has come from left-aligned organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Civic Participation Action Fund, The Advocacy Fund, and New Approach PAC. That trend is likely to continue: The ACLU has pledged to spend at least $5 million on the effort before November.
If approved, the Voting Restoration Amendment 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.
While many states restore rights to all people who have completed their sentences, including those convicted of murder and sexual offenses, Paulson said it was important that Florida set limits.
“I know you can make an argument for that, but I’m looking at it politically speaking, and there’s no way this is going to pass in a state like Florida,” he said. “It’s just not a winnable condition.”
But the amendment would still have a significant impact because most of Florida’s convicted felons are non-violent. A number of seemingly minor crimes constitute felonies in Florida, according to Paulson, including “driving with a suspended license, disturbing eggs of nesting turtles, burning a fire in public, walking through a posted construction site, catching lobsters with tails that are too short, and launching helium balloons into the air.”
There is no available polling on how Floridians feel about rights restoration, but a 2014 Rasmussen Reports study found that 65 percent of likely voters across the United States think that if someone with a felony conviction serves their sentence without problem, their right to vote should be restored.