Voters in one of America’s biggest swing states will be able to decide on this November’s ballot whether convicted felons will regain the right to vote.
If 60 percent of voters in Florida approve the initiative, Amendment 4, voting rights would be returned to 1.5 million felons in the state once they compete their sentences, including parole or probation. The initiative would not include sex offenders or murderers.
“Floridians for Fair Democracy, led by Desmond Meade, of Orlando, successfully gathered more than 799,000 certified signatures in their years-long petition drive, just a week before the deadline to reach the required total of about 766,000,” The Orlando Sentinel reported on Tuesday.
“Because of that, the state on Tuesday certified the initiative for the Nov. 6 ballot.”
And the question could be crucial for future Florida elections.
“Voter approval could reshape the politics of the nation’s largest swing state, where the past two races for governor have been decided by about 1 percentage point and where the 2000 vote for president was decided by 537 votes,” the Miami Herald noted.
Meade was a former drug addict who was convicted of drug and firearm charges back in 2001. He went on to earn a law degree, but found himself unable to vote for his wife when she mounted an unsuccessful attempt at the Florida House of Representatives.
“As someone directly impacted, I cannot quantify the level of emotion moving through me right now,” Meade told the Sentinel.
Meade’s organization used paid solicitors to collect 1.1 million signatures, the vast majority of which came from only four Florida counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Broward.
Of the states that currently bar any voting by former felons without clemency, Florida is by far the largest. The current setup, which requires felons to wait five years to begin the clemency progress, was put into place by Gov. Rick Scott — who could be on the ballot for Senate this year.
The possible impact of Amendment 4 divided pundits. University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, who said the measure “flies in the face of the governor and his hostility to restoring voting rights,” said ballot initiatives can often bring out voters who aren’t interested in off-year elections.
“I think it’s going to bring some people out who otherwise wouldn’t be very enchanted with their candidates,” Smith said. “A million people signed the petition. This has been a long time coming for a lot of folks.”
However, Heritage Foundation member Darryl Paulson — who supports the initiative despite representing a conservative organization — predicts it won’t make too much difference in state politics, pointing out only one-third of felons would likely register and one-fifth would actually vote.
“It runs both ways,” said Paulson. “Democrats clearly support the issue because they believe they will benefit, and Republicans tend to oppose it because they believe they will be hurt.”
“My position is it’s not a good way to make public policy based on how it might impact an election sometime down the road,” the emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg said. “Voting rights restoration is economically right, morally right and just the right thing to do.”
Two other alternative proposals have been floated by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission: one similar to Amendment 4 and one, proposed by Democrat state Sen. Darryl Rouson, which would exclude felons convicted of more serious crimes, including burglary and a dozen other offenses.
Scott, for his part, said he was merely concerned with felons paying their debt to society and successfully reintegrating into the community.
“This is a decision for each voter to decide on,” Scott spokeswoman Kelli Wyland told the Miami Herald.
“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.”
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