Campaign mounts for 'second chances,' restoring voting rights in Florida

Desmond Meade

Desmond Meade is at the center of a growing campaign to shift course in Florida and expand voting rights to those who have served their felony sentences. (Photo from Twitter/@desmondmeade.)

Across the country, more than 6 million citizens aren't able to vote because of laws preventing those with a felony conviction from casting a ballot. More than 1.7 million, or a quarter of the nation's voters disenfranchised by these laws, live in Florida, the perennial battleground state that also has some of the most restrictive rules barring the franchise from those with a felony record in their past.

African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected by these laws, a product of inequities in the criminal justice system. Today, about 21 percent of Florida's voting-age African-American population is kept from voting under the state's harsh rules.

One of them is Desmond Meade, a 49-year-old in Orlando who is at the center of a growing campaign to shift course in Florida and expand voting rights to those who have served their felony sentences.

Meade has a law degree with Florida International University, and last fall worked on his wife Sheena's unsuccessful run for the Florida House. But one thing he couldn't do is vote for her. Meade applied to have his voting rights restored in 2006, after finishing his sentences for drug possession, and, later, for aggravated assault and possession of a firearm. Florida requires that those seeking to regain voting rights submit a petition to the state's Executive Clemency Board, which includes Gov. Rick Scott (R) and two other members of his cabinet. And Meade is still waiting.

The number of Florida citizens who see their voting rights restored through the process has varied dramatically depending on who is in the governor's office. From 2002 to 2006, the clemency board cleared 72,080 citizens to vote, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. Gov. Charlie Crist expedited the process, leading to a surge in votes being restored — up to 155,315 between 2007 and 2010. But Gov. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi ushered in new restrictions on the process in 2011; between 2011 and 2014, the number of citizens with voting rights restored plummeted to 1,534.

"When you look at the number of individuals whose rights have been restored over the last six years, I mean, it's depressing, considering 47 other states allow people to vote after they've served their time," Meade said in an interview last November.

A statewide campaign

Meade is now leading a campaign that would allow Florida voters to change the state's disenfranchisement law, which was passed in 1868 as part of a backlash against the threat of growing African-American voting power after the Civil War.

Meade is working with a coalition of groups seeking to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018. If approved by Florida voters, the Voting Restoration Amendment would restore the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The measure would still deny the vote to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be barred from voting unless the governor and cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis.

The measure faces an uphill climb. In 2015 and 2016 the umbrella group Floridians for a Fair Democracy — which is chaired by Meade and includes his group, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition — blanketed the state to get signatures to put the amendment on the ballot in November 2016 but came up short due to Florida's stringent iniatiative requirements.

To get on the ballot, groups need to get a number of signatures totaling 8 percent of the total voters in the previous election; the signatures must also come from voters distributed throughout the state. For the 2016 campaign, the campaign needed 683,149 signatures by Feb. 1, 2016; the group collected 50,459 valid names, according to the secretary of state.

This time, supporters will need 753,603 valid signatures by Feb. 1, 2018 to put the measure on the ballot. As of mid-December 2016, Floridians for a Fair Democracy had submitted 71,207 signatures, which triggered a review of the ballot measure by the state Supreme Court earlier this month. Meade and other advocates are encouraged so far; although Gov. Scott and Attorney General Bondi are on record opposing the measure, the state didn't seek to block it from moving forward at the March 7 court hearings. Prior to the Supreme Court review, election supervisors from Broward and Leon Counties submitted advisory opinions endorsing the amendment's language.

If cleared by the court, the ballot amendment will go through an analysis of its fiscal impact and a review of how the summary of the amendment appears on the ballot. Should the measure make it onto the ballot in 2018, the amendment would need support from 60 percent of Florida voters to pass. Once implemented, advocates estimate that 70,000 to 100,000 Florida voters would quickly see their rights restored, with more after that as they finish out their sentences.

Legal challenges

In parallel with the ballot amendment campaign, Florida's harsh disenfranchisement law is being challenged on another front: This month, the Fair Elections Legal Network filed a class-action lawsuit that focuses on the haphazard nature of the state's clemency board process for restoring rights.

According to the lawsuit, more than 10,000 citizens are waiting for a hearing on their restoration applications, which can take as long as 10 years. In addition, the Network argues there are no clear guidelines or standards for who is approved or who isn't, giving Gov. Scott and his cabinet "unfettered discretion" in the decisions. The group's lawsuit quotes Gov. Scott himself as admitting at the clemency board's last hearing that "Clemency is … is — there's no standard.  We can do whatever we want."

This, says Network attorney Jon Sherman, is a violation of the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment on grounds including arbitrary treatment, equal protection and burdens on voting rights. As Sherman said in a statement announcing the lawsuit:

Unlike the overwhelming majority of states, Florida simply has no law that tells ex-felons when their voting rights are restored. Instead, they must beg state officials to give them their rights back and this set-up violates our Constitution. The right to vote should be automatically restored to ex-felons at a specific point in time — the completion of a sentence — not whenever a politician decides you've earned it.

As a remedy, Sherman and the Network call for the "automatic restoration of the rights of the plaintiffs and other former felons who have served their full sentences including parole and probation."

Although both the coalition's ballot campaign and the legal challenge face considerable odds, advocates of voting rights restoration believe they can win broad support if they can bring their message to Florida voters. While changing the state's disenfranchisement policy would undoubtedly benefit Democrats, given that a disproportionate share of those barred from voting are Democratic-leaning African-American and Latino voters, campaign leaders believe reform speaks to deeper values that can persude enough Floridians to back the changes.

"America is a nation of second chances," said Meade. "It makes economic sense. It makes public safety sense. And it makes moral sense."