Florida Supreme Court approves ballot question on voting rights for ex-felons

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The Florida Supreme Court approved language for a ballot question that could restore the voting rights of the majority of the state's 1.6 million ex-felons.

The Voting Restoration Amendment would restore the voting rights of convicted felons who've completed their sentences, including parole or probation. Felons who've been convicted of murder or sexual offenses would not be eligible for automatic restoration, but could appear before the governor and Cabinet to get their rights restored on a case-by-case basis. Currently, that clemency process can take years.

To get on the 2018 ballot, the amendment's supporters still need to gather 683,149 signatures from across the state. So far, they have 71,209 valid signatures.

A report from the Brennan Center for Justice last year says Florida's restrictive voting laws surrounding ex-felons can be traced back to Jim Crow laws. Out of the group of a million and a half people who lost the right to vote, about one-third are black, even though African Americans make up just 16 percent of the state’s population.

"Florida’s criminal disenfranchisement law is rooted in some of our country’s most discriminatory voting practices, and it continues to have its intended effects today," the study's author said in a statement. "It is time for Florida to learn from the past and then leave it behind. The right to vote should not be used as a tool for lifetime punishment."

The movement in Florida to restore ex-felons' rights through the ballot is largely led by Desmond Meade, an Orlando resident who heads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida is also helping in the effort.

"Now the work of gathering signatures and mounting a successful campaign to change the Florida Constitution begins in earnest," says Kirk Bailey, ACLU of Florida political director, in a statement. "We look forward to Florida voters being given a chance to bring our state's voting rules out of the 19th century and into the 21st."

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