Nearly eight years after Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet did away with quasi-automatic restoration of civil rights, voters may have a chance to approve a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights for non-violent felons.
Supporters of the proposal have gathered enough signatures to trigger a review from the Florida Supreme Court, whose approval is required for the initiative to make it onto the 2018 ballot.
The "Voter Restoration Amendment" would automatically restore voting rights for all nonviolent felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution. Felons convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, would not be eligible.
Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the committee sponsoring the ballot initiative, on Thursday surpassed the 68,314 petition signatures required for a review by Attorney General Pam Bondi, the first step in getting on the ballot. Bondi's office would then hand it over to the Supreme Court for a review of whether the proposal meets requirements about ballot wording.
"The first review is by the person (Bondi) who led the charge to make voting rights more difficult, so I'm a little concerned about what her response is going to be in transmitting it to the Florida Supreme Court," American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon told The News Service of Florida.
Bondi in 2011 sponsored the proposal that undid the restoration-of-rights process approved years earlier by former Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet. Bondi's plan, strongly supported by Scott, was one of the first actions taken by the governor and the all-new Republican Cabinet after they were elected in 2010.
Under the rule approved by Scott and the Cabinet, nonviolent offenders whose crimes are less severe are able to apply to get their rights back five years after completing their sentences and all other requirements, such as restitution. More serious offenders are required to wait seven years before beginning the application process.
Critics of the process called it a return to post-Civil War Jim Crow policies designed to keep blacks from casting their ballots. When approved in 2011, only two other states —- Virginia and Kentucky —- required felons to apply to have their voting rights restored after they had completed sentences.
"I think the politicians and maybe the public believe that former felons are all blacks and are all going to become Democratic voters. I want to emphasize that the majority of felons in Florida is white and not black," Simon said. "I think that may be contrary to the stereotype that maybe a lot of people have, and the political judgment that so many of our legislators have made."
Constitutional law professor and former Florida House speaker Jon Mills will handle the Supreme Court review of the petition, Simon said.
Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and chairman of the committee backing the proposal, said supporters have relied solely on volunteers to gather signatures, in contrast to other petition drives in which groups pay workers to collect petitions.
The group will have to submit 683,149 signatures by the end of February 2018 to make it onto that year's ballot.
"This is an all-American issue for people from all walks of life," said Meade, who graduated from law school but cannot practice law in Florida because Scott and the Cabinet have not restored his civil rights.
Meade estimated that nearly 2 million Floridians could be eligible to vote, if the proposed constitutional amendment makes it onto the ballot and voters approve it.
The process of applying for restoration of rights is complicated, lengthy and can be expensive. Applicants who travel to Tallahassee to appear before Scot and the Cabinet, acting as the Board of Executive Clemency, seem to have a better chance at getting their rights restored than those who don't show up in person.
"Even if you do navigate the difficult process, you still may not get your rights restored," Meade said. "That can be really frustrating and disheartening."