For the first time in Florida history, voters will decide whether to restore the right to vote to an estimated 1.5 million people who have been stripped of their civil rights because of felony convictions.
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.
A statewide grass-roots effort years in the making reached a critical milestone Tuesday when state elections officials certified that supporters had collected valid signatures from 799,000 voters — more than enough to place the question on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Amendment 4 will ask voters to change the state Constitution and “terminate” the current ban on voting by felons. It needs 60 percent approval to become law.
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“Voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation,” reads the ballot question, which does not include felons convicted of murder or felony sex crimes.
Passage would repeal a Jim Crow-era policy that has endured for more than a century and that studies show disproportionately disenfranchises the poor and African Americans.
Florida is by far the largest of only three states in which felons are permanently denied the right to vote, run for office or serve on a jury, unless they undertake a laborious and time-consuming process of applying for clemency, which requires the governor’s personal support.
The state currently has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases.
“It’s tears of joy right now,” said Desmond Meade, 39, an ex-addict who gained a law degree and who has waited for years to regain the right to vote. “To see this outpouring of support just overwhelms me. We’re much further along than folks thought was possible. People from all walks of life just stood up and signed our petitions.”
Meade is chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a political committee in Clearwater that coordinated a statewide petition drive.
Relying on paid solicitors, now a standard practice in Florida ballot initiative campaigns, Meade’s group collected the majority of its 1.1 million signatures in four counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Broward.
Meade said that makes him believe the proposal has a strong chance of passing in November.
“I’m confident the people are going to pass what they want,” Meade said.
Supporters also received heavy financial support from the American Civil Liberties Union, which contributed at least $1.8 million of the $4.6 million raised.
The proposal will appear on a statewide ballot in a midterm election that also will feature elections for one of two U.S. Senate seats in Florida, governor, all three Cabinet races, seats in Congress, the Legislature and other ballot initiatives.
Next comes a statewide political campaign to win public approval of the amendment. Several other proposals to restore voting rights or broader civil rights are pending before the Constitution Revision Commission and the Legislature.
That could complicate the ballot by confusing voters with two different voting rights proposals.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who sits on the Constitution Revision Commission, predicted that Tuesday’s developments would prompt action by lawmakers in the current session.
“Now you’re going to see the Legislature move on something,” Lee predicted. He is sponsoring a bill (SB 1654) that would let felons petition a court for restoration of civil rights.
The voting rights amendment has the potential to permanently shift the makeup of the electorate in Florida in time for the next presidential election in 2020, if it passes and if a significant number of felons register to vote.
Studies show that African Americans, who strongly favor Democrats, make up a disproportionately large share of the disenfranchised.
Restoration of voting rights is impossible without the personal intervention of the governor and at least two elected members of the Cabinet in a process known as executive clemency.
Under current law, felons must wait for at least five years to apply for the restoration of civil rights. The state Commission on Offender Review has a backlog of thousands of clemency applications and hearings are held only four times a year.
The current five-year waiting period was adopted by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and three Republican Cabinet members in 2011, shortly after they were all elected.
The five-year wait, championed by Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, repealed a streamlined policy enacted by former Gov. Charlie Crist that allowed many convicted felons to regain their rights without hearings.
Scott, a possible U.S. Senate candidate, may have to share the ballot with an initiative that would undo one of his signature policies.
“This flies in the face of the governor and his hostility to restoring voting rights,” said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith.
A spokeswoman for Scott, Kelli Wyland, said: “This is a decision for each voter to decide on. 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.”
Smith said major candidates all will face pressure to take sides on Amendment 4, and he cited a body of political science scholarship showing that ballot initiatives often attract more voter interest in a presidential off-year election, such as the next one, than presidential 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.”