Floridians to Decide If Felons Get Voting Rights Back

Devin Coleman

Part One: The Felon

This is the first installment of a four-part series on the effort to overturn a 150-year-old law in Florida that strips felons of their voting rights for life. A proposal that would dramatically change the law will appear on the state ballot in November.

(CN) – When Florida voters head to the polls in November, Devin Coleman will not join them.

Not because Coleman eschews voting; far from it. In fact, for the last few years, the 40-year-old Jacksonville native has crisscrossed the state and country fighting for voting rights.

But Coleman is a felon and in Florida, very few felons have their voting rights restored after their convictions.

The Sunshine State has the highest number of disenfranchised felons in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project. Florida is one of only three states that ban ex-convicts from voting for life. Iowa and Kentucky are the others.

Coleman is one of the 1.6 million felons who’ll be sitting out the vote in Florida this year. That’s more than 10 percent of the state’s voting-age population without representation in their government.

For African-Americans like Coleman, the number is even starker: One in five black Floridians cannot vote due to the felon voting ban, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

But Coleman does not see it as a black and white issue.

“It’s a people issue,” he says. “These [former felons] are actually members of the community. They are married. They work. They coach football leagues. But there are pieces of their life missing, like not going the ballot box.”

Florida’s law depriving voting rights to felony offenders goes back 150 years, though a number of attempts have been made to streamline the process for restoring those rights. Despite these efforts, the number of petitioners who actually get their vote back, is just a fraction of the thousands of felons who re-enter society each year.

This year, however, could mark a historic shift.

In February, a federal judge ruled Florida’s clemency process is arbitrary and unconstitutional, and ordered the state to scrap it for a new scheme. (The state has since appealed that decision.)

And at about the same time, a group of activists successfully placed a measure on the 2018 November ballot that would automatically restore voting rights to felons who complete their sentences, except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

Could 2018 be the year voters offer former felons like Coleman redemption?

Devin Coleman graduated from Jacksonville’s Ed White High School and went on to attend Florida A&M University, where he studied economics.

In October 1999, his senior year, Coleman attended a house party in Tallahassee with friends. A fight ensued and when police arrived, two men had injuries and some items were missing from the home.

Coleman pleaded guilty to grand theft and burglary of a dwelling with battery, both felonies, and spent the next two-and-a-half years in prison. Shortly after his release, Coleman was involved in a domestic dispute and was sent back to prison for violating his parole, according to court records.

By the time he was released in August 2006, the U.S. midterm elections were approaching, and Florida was poised to elect a new governor. Coleman, who says he followed politics while in college and cast his first vote in 2000, expected to vote that November, only to learn he was banned from doing so.

“I had absolutely no idea,” he says. “I would get voter registration cards in the mail, but someone was like, ‘You can’t vote.’ They didn’t tell you that when you finished [your sentence].”

So he sat out the 2006 election, the historic 2008 presidential election and every election since.

“I was ashamed,” he says of the situation. “I was doing stuff in the community to help kids make the right choices. … I did so much to be a better man, but even [with] that, I was not good enough.”

The right to vote is about “inclusion,” he says.

“Part of being in the community is being able to participate in that,” he says.

Coleman says his recently becoming a father makes civic engagement even more important.

“Look how voting affects the future of my child,” he says. “It even transcends me. It’s like another generation is punished before they were even born.”

Since his release, Coleman has completed a degree in organizational management at Jacksonville’s Edward Waters College, published his first volume of poetry, “Prisoner to Poet: Thoughts of an Incarcerated Soul,” and become involved in organizations like the Fatherhood Initiative Task Force.

But Coleman’s passion lays with his work as a board member of the Florida Rights Restoration Council. The organization was one of the main actors in the drive to get the proposal to life the felon voting ban on this year’s ballot.

Coleman says the group’s goal transcends politics, and he dismisses suggestions that a successful outcome for the effort will benefit Democrats over Republicans.

“I want people to take away the things that divide us,” he says.

“There’s more things that bring us together than divide us. We talk about political affiliations, race. What we don’t talk about is these are people,” he added. “These are your sons, daughters, parents, cousins. They are your neighbors, the people in the grocery store with you. Thing is, they will come out [of prison] one day. They will try to build their lives. Are we going to help them?”

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