Group wants felon voting rights measure on ballot

- A felony conviction means the loss of many things: time, money, and often career, but in Florida it also means a lifetime ban from the voting booth, even after a sentence has been served.

It's a rule that affects more than 1.6 million Floridians, or 10-percent of the voting population, according to The Sentencing Project. Florida is just one of three states in the country that automatically strips felons of voting rights.

That could soon change. A movement to join the other 47 states is picking up momentum. In 2018, voters could decide whether or not certain convicted felons in Florida, who've served their time, should have this civil right restored.

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously approved language for the 2018 ballot that would automatically restore voting rights for certain convicted felons. The proposed amendment would not include those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes.

"Not one Supreme Court justice opposed our language and I think that was tremendous," said Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, one of the several groups working to restore voting rights for disenfranchised felons in Florida.

For Meade, it's a cause that hits close to home. Himself a convicted felon, Meade overcame drug addiction and homelessness. In 2014 he earned a law degree from Florida International University. Meade turned his life around after serving his sentence, but he's still paying a price for his past.

"I think the most personal impact that it's had is this past election cycle when my wife was running for a state office and I couldn't even vote for her," said Meade, who's also unable to apply to the state bar because of his conviction.

Non-violent offenders can appeal to get their voting rights back, but under a rule put in place by Governor Rick Scott, a felon must wait for an additional five to seven years after their sentence is served in order to apply to have voting rights restored. Voting rights advocates say from there, the process is extremely slow.
"You have to wait years to apply, then you get on a waiting list and at Governor Scott's pace, 2,000 felons in seven years [have had their rights restored], divide that into 1.7 million and figure out how many years it's going to take to get people their voting rights back," said American Civil Liberties Union of Florida president Mike Pheneger.

The Supreme Court decision was a major victory for Floridians for a Fair Democracy, whose petition for a constitutional amendment gathered more than 75,000 signatures. With the language approved, the group needs another 700,000 signatures in order to get the Voting Restoration Amendment on the 2018 ballot.     

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