Florida Amendment 4: Felon voting rights

- In Florida, 10 percent of adults are not allowed to vote. They have been convicted of a felony, and Florida is one of four states that does not restore voting rights once felons have served their sentences.

There's a major fight to change it: Amendment Four would restore the right to vote for felons like Coral Nichols.

As a member of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Nichols is going door to door, hoping to convince residents in South Tampa to support the measure.

"The more people I get to share my story with, the more people who look at me like, ‘no way you are a convicted felon.’"

Convicted in 2004, she served five years for embezzlement and will be on probation until next year. She then has to wait seven years before going to a clemency board that consists of the governor and his cabinet. 

Then, she is given a minute to make her case. 

The board decides, yes or no: Vote, or not.

Amendment Four would abolish the board and restore voting rights to those who have done their time, in a fell swoop.

"It is my voice," said Nichols. "As a child, I learned my voice didn't matter. It led me down a road to do some things, making poor choices."

Of late, the issue has gotten national attention.

"The worst state of all concerning this, and arguably everything else, is Florida," said comedian John Oliver - only half kidding - on his HBO show Last Week Tonight.

He pointed out the rules have roots in 1868, when the state's new constitution effectively banned ex-slaves from voting. 

Gov. Charlie Crist reformed the process, restoring rights to 150,000 people. 

But Gov. Rick Scott tightened rules again, only restoring rights to about 3,000 ex-felons, just 10 percent of the cases they've heard.  And, they hear only 50 cases per quarter, with 1.6 million still banned.

"It is like someone finishing a triathlon, only for Scott to then say, 'No, it's a quadathon, now you have to learn Mandarin.' It doesn't really seem fair," joked Oliver.

The New York Times, NPR, and Fox News Channel have all covered the issue too, pointing out 1.6 million new people on the rolls could impact everything.

"Florida has been decided by fewer than 200,000 votes in three of the last five presidential races, so it's a meaningful number," Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on his show.

Tampa lawyer Richard Harrison, of Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, says restoring rights in one shot is a mistake.

"It doesn't allow anyone to evaluate on an individualized case-by-case basis what someone has done or whether they have truly turned their lives around."

The issue also has a racial tinge, given a disproportionate number of those who are disenfranchised are African-American. 

The governor says the current rules are about discerning who has actually reformed.

Nichols will knock on doors until the election. Real reform, she says, can't come until one has a stake in society.

"The problem comes when you continue to punish," she said. "When we continue to punish, you don't allow someone to have a buy-in, then you increase the recidivism."

Amendment Four would not impact rules that prohibit felons from owning guns or from serving on juries.

Three-fifths of voters have to support the amendment for it to be enshrined in the Florida Constitution.

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