TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) — Voting is a right but it’s also a privilege, one that many people believe should be afforded to every American.
Former felons could have their Florida voting rights restored under a proposed constitutional amendment headed to voters in November, a measure that could have a significant impact on a state known for historically close elections.
Floridians for a Fair Democracy has more than 799,000 certified petition signatures, or about 33,000 more than the group needed to get the measure on the ballot. The group estimates that if voters approve the measure in November, about 1.5 million ex-felons would have their voting rights restored.
“Voters took matters in their own hands to ensure that their fellow Floridians, family members, and friends who’ve made past mistakes, served their time and paid their debts to society are given a second chance and the opportunity to earn back their ability to vote,” said Desmond Meade, the group’s chairman.
Democrats and voting rights groups have long advocated for the restoration of felon voting rights. Florida’s ban on ex-felon voting — along with a voting list purge that took some non-felons of voting rolls — likely cost then-Vice President Al Gore the 2000 presidential election. Republican George W. Bush won Florida, and thus the White House, by 537 votes in an election that took five weeks to sort out.
And without the ban, Florida’s presidential election could have had a different outcome last year. President Donald Trump carried Florida with fewer than 50 percent of the vote, beating Hillary Rodham Clinton 49 percent to 47.8 percent.
Before the 2000 election, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris hired a company to purge felons from the state’s voting lists. But the process was flawed and many eligible voters were removed from rolls because of mistaken identity. Others were convicted of misdemeanors and not felonies.
Florida has a process to restore voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences, but it requires a hearing, it’s a slow process and applicants are often denied. If voters approve the amendment, felons would have their voting rights restored once they complete their sentences. Felons convicted of murder or sex offenses wouldn’t be eligible. The measure needs 60 percent voter approval to pass.
Shortly after taking office in 2007, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist convinced two of the state’s three Cabinet to approve rules that would allow the parole commission to restore voting rights for non-violent felons without a hearing. Within a year, more than 100,000 ex-felons were granted voting rights.
But Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet ended automatic restoration of voting rights as one of his first acts after taking office in 2011.
Crist, now a Democratic U.S. Representative, was joyful when told that the initiative will be on the ballot.
“That’s great! That’s wonderful!” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
Crist was one of the exceptions among Republicans in supporting felon voting rights restorations. Politically, felon voting rights restoration is seen as benefiting Democrats, largely because African-Americans are disproportionally affected by the ban, and they tend to overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.
“I thought it was very imp to make a statement about how Florida has progressed and come into the modern era. Who among us doesn’t deserve a second chance,” Crist said.
The Republican Party of Florida and Gov. Rick Scott’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)