Success of Fight to Restore Felon Voting Rights Far From Assured

Gov. Rick Scott talking with Attorney General Pam Bondi during a June 2012 clemency hearing, (Photo by Michael Ciago / News21)

(This is the fourth and final 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. In this installment, Courthouse News looks at the politics surrounding a November ballot initiative that could change the law.)

(CN) – When the organizers of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition fanned across Florida gathering signatures for a constitutional amendment to end the lifetime voting ban on felons, the activists stressed how the issue crossed racial lines and political ideologies.

Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, endorsed the ballot measure. So did Ash Mason, chairman of the Christian Coalition of Florida.

In one ceremonious display of bipartisanship, Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo joined Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace, a Democrat, to publicly sign the petition. The campaign, largely bankrolled by the American Civil Liberties Union, also attracted the interest of right-leaning groups like the Koch Foundation and Florida Tax Watch.

So far, there has been little backlash against the “Second Chances Voting Restoration Amendment,” or Amendment 4, which will appear on the 2018 ballot. If approved, Amendment 4 would automatically restore the voting rights of former felons, except those convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses.

A recent May survey, conducted by North Star Opinion Research and EMC Research, found 74 percent of voters support the ballot amendment. Republican, Democrat and Independent voters all polled over 60 percent, which is the threshold for passing a ballot initiative in Florida.

But in a state where elections are won by razor-thin margins, the prospect of thousands of new voters benefiting one political party over another can easily give way to opportunistic politicians and political action committees willing to exploit the issue.

“I don’t think it is a sure thing and a lot depends on how this issue unfolds over the next few months,” says Darryl Paulson, Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and a supporter of Amendment 4. “If it becomes a partisan issue, the passage becomes in jeopardy.”

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, who faces a challenge by Republican Gov. Scott, brought up voter restoration in an April interview with the Miami Herald, which quoted him as saying he doesn’t need to motivate African-American voters, because the amendment will bring them out.

All four Democratic candidates for Florida governor support voting rights restoration. The two Republican contenders have been largely silent on the issue.

“It’s clear the Democrats have financially backed the voter restoration issue,” says Paulson, a self-described conservative who served as a fellow for the Heritage Foundation. “Democrats have pushed for it for the wrong reasons, as have Republicans.”

Both political parties know adding thousands of new voters to the rolls has the potential to impact politics statewide and nationally. The last two gubernatorial elections in Florida were decided by 1 percentage point. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump took the state with less than 120,000 votes.

“That’s not the right reason to deny someone the right to vote,” says Paulson. “It’s up to the party to argue, and try and convince people, instead of trying to disenfranchise the electorate.”

Paulson believes the accepted narrative of Democrats claiming the moral high ground on criminal justice reform is changing.

Conservatives like him argue re-integrating felons into society leads to lower recidivism rates, which means fewer taxpayer dollars going to jails and guards. But there’s also the issue of fairness, he says.

“Especially as the party of Lincoln, Republicans should support inclusion and winning on merit, not in manipulation,” he says.

Despite the high poll numbers, Amendment 4 does have detractors.

Last year, Tampa attorney Richard Harrison organized Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy to educate the public on the possible impacts of the Voting Restoration Amendment. He grew concerned after reading a newspaper article incorrectly stating the amendment would only apply to non-violent felons. (The measure only excludes murderers and those with felony sexual offenses.)

“Yes, murderers and rapists don’t count, but [the amendment] still includes lots of violent people,” he says by phone from his office in Tampa. “If I go to the liquor store and shoot the clerk, and he dies, I cannot get my voting rights back. But if he lives, I get voting rights back under this amendment. The media has not done a good job of making that clear.”

Harrison, a registered Republican, emphasizes his group is not opposed to restoring voting rights in certain circumstances and posits a two-path system: streamlined clemency for first-time, non-violent offenders and a more rigorous process for others. But not a “blanket automatic restoration,” he says.

“There are fair criticisms of the current process,” Harrison says. “It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘We don’t like the process, so we’re going to throw the whole thing out.”

Harrison defends the low number of felons re-gaining their civil rights by pointing to the low recidivism rate.

Of those granted restoration of civil rights during Gov. Scott’s first term, just 18 have re-offended – a recidivism rate of less than 1 percent, according to a report by the Florida Commission on Offender Review.

Of those felons granted voting rights during former Gov. Charlie Crist’s term, which allowed automatic restoration for many offenses, more than a quarter re-offended by June 2016, the report found.

“[Scott has] been a lot stingier about it, but he’s picking the right ones,” Harrison says. “The idea is to find and select for clemency the people who genuinely changed their lives around.”

As Election Day approaches, Harrison expects more voters, and deep-pocketed political action committees, will oppose Amendment 4.  

“I do think as we get closer to November it’s going to start looking more like a political campaign,” he says.

%d bloggers like this: