Floridians will decide whether felons have the right to vote

- In her Seminole office, Coral Nichols has her walls lined with inspiration -- frames containing scripture, quotes of positivity, and her master's degree.

Nichols, a sober coach and co-founder of non-profit Empowered to Change, works with people in the criminal justice system, clients who are working through diversion programs and frequently battling homelessness and addiction.

"We help people go through a program that I developed," Nichols said. "That teaches them life skills. It teaches them accountability, and it teaches them sustainability."

It wasn't too long ago, though, that Nichols was looking at much different walls, and another photo defined her life.

"It's the old me," Nichols said, pulling up a copy of her mugshot on her computer.

The photo looks nothing like her, both in appearance and attitude. Nichols is well-dressed, with long blonde hair and an air of positivity and humility. The woman in the picture has short black hair and is wearing jail attire, along with an emotionless face. 

"I don't go to her grave, and I don't mourn her because she has nothing to do with my future," Nichols continued.

Despite the changes Nichols says she has made in her life, however, that picture and her past may, indeed, haunt her future and her ability to exercise her civil rights for years to come. The 39-year-old completed five years in prison for embezzlement and is still working through a 10-year probation, but as a convicted felon in the state of Florida, she is barred for life from owning a firearm, serving on a jury, and voting.

Felons' voting rights vary from state to state, but under Florida's current protocol, which is considered one of the strictest in the country, felons who have completed their sentences must wait five to seven years afterwards to petition a clemency board -- made up the governor and his cabinet -- to get their rights back.

It's estimated that 1.8 million people cannot vote in the state of Florida due to felony convictions, the highest disenfranchisement rate in the country.

"I will be 55 years old," Nichols said, "before I can even see the governor and ask in one minute -- to explain to him why I'm different and why I'm sorry."

Even then, a hearing before the clemency board is no guarantee. According to the state, since 2011, when the current rules were instated, 29,611 felons have applied for their civil rights back. 2,886 have been approved, which is a success rate of less than 10 percent.

In November, Florida voters will be asked to decide on whether this process should change. Groups across the state have successfully placed a proposed amendment on the ballot, which would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation -- with the exception of murderers and sexual offenders, who would still have to go through the current clemency process. The full amendment text can be viewed here. 

Neil Volz, with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, says that the current process can be confusing and lengthy, and discourages many from even trying.

"We have people who have written a bad check 26 years ago, who are waiting for the clemency process to play out," Volz said. "What you have is a process that isn't evenly distributed. It's very subjective in nature. It's cumbersome, and it's difficult for someone to walk through that process."

Opponents of the proposed amendment, like Richard Harrison, a Tampa attorney and executive director of Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, say the current system is imperfect, but completely removing the petitioning process and moving towards automatic rights restoration is not the way to go.

"It treats everybody on the spectrum the same," Harrison said of the proposed amendment. "It treats the first-time offenders of nonviolent crime basically the same as it treats someone who's been a career criminal, who's actually hurt people. It makes no distinction."

Harrison says his group would be open to proposals that streamline the petitioning process, perhaps making it quicker, but not lose the individual vetting.

"Doing it on a case-by-case basis is the fundamentally correct approach," Harrison continued.

In a separate move, Florida's legislature is considering a bill that would allow felons who have completed their sentences to petition the courts and have a judge, rather than elected officials, for their rights back. Harrison says his organization has not taken an official stance on this bill, but he does note this proposal could speed up the process for offenders, while still retaining that individual consideration of each offender's crime, criminal history, and success in returning to society. He believes the potential downside to the bill is that decisions may lose uniformity, since standards can vary from judge to judge. 

At the beginning of the month, a federal judge ruled Florida's automatic stripping of civil rights after a felony conviction is legal, but the current process through which those rights are restored is unfair and potentially arbitrary, since decisions could possibly be swayed by partisan politics. 

PREVIOUS STORY: Federal judge knocks down Florida's ban for ex-felons

Meantime, the proposed amendment that will come before voters this November would have to garner at least 60 percent approval in order to pass.

"In the last 13 years, I've made every effort to be different," Nichols added. "The word 'Department of Corrections' -- 'correction' means to redirect, to change something. Well, I've been corrected, but I'm continually punished."

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