Efforts are underway in the state to get a constitutional amendment on the 2016 General Election ballot that would restore voting rights to felons on the state’s 2016 General Election ballot. On Monday, March 2, the Pensacola Coffee Party and League of Women Voters of the Pensacola Bay Area will present a public discussion of the topic. The forum will be held at Franco’s Italian Restaurant at 6 p.m.
Currently, Florida is one of the toughest states in the country - along with Kentucky and Iowa- for ex-felons seeking to have their civil rights restored.
“Florida is one of three states that have a lifetime ban on voting for people who’ve been convicted of a felony,” says Sara Latshaw, director of ACLU of North Florida, who will be one of the forum’s panelists.
Specifically, Latshaw says it can be a lifetime voting ban for felons given Florida’s required application process and waiting periods.
“There is a clemency board that one can apply to. However, the rules are changing every four years as the board changes. And as it is right now, it’s incredibly difficult, verging on impossible.” Latshaw said. “From 2010 to 2014, only (approximately) 1500 people had their rights restored and the backlog is about 20,000 applicants. So, at this point it’s a virtual standstill.”
To Latshaw’s point about the changing rules, the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands ex-felons, mostly African Americans, was an issue during the hotly-contested 2000 presidential election in Florida.
In 2007, under former Gov. Charlie Crist, the statute was changed to allow automatic restoration of civil rights upon completion of time served.
During the Crist administration, the clemency board restored the rights of more than 155,000 non-violent offenders.
But, in March of 2011, under Gov. Scott, the rules stiffened again, with the clemency board currently requiring all individuals convicted of any felony to wait five years before applying. Tougher restrictions are in place for ex-felons convicted of more serious crimes.
According to Latshaw, the rules have been too unpredictable, and unfair.
“And, that’s why it would make sense for us to make it a consistent process, where those who’ve erred are able to earn back their rights and have a second chance,” she said.
Having the right to vote, says Latshaw, is important in the lives of ex-felons, allowing them to participate in the democratic process and begin to engage in their communities.
“So often when people come out of the criminal justice system, they’re faced with so many hurdles. You know, the punishments are mandatory. They’re restricted from professional licenses and discriminated against in employment and housing and voting is just another piece in that puzzle.”
The result she believes is a system where people are almost set up to fail.
Representing ACLU of Florida, Sara Latshaw will be joined on the panel by Dr. Matthew Crow, Chair of the University of West Florida Criminal Justice Department and Charles D. Thornton, Sr., President of the NAACP Pensacola Branch.
One of their goals is to explain the felon voting rights issue and help participants understand the proposed ballot initiative.
“So, basically, the amendment would allow for those who’ve completed the terms of their sentence to earn back the right to vote. However, this wouldn’t apply to people who have been convicted of murder or a sexual offense. They would have to go back through that normal clemency process,” Latshaw said.
As for the process of getting the proposed constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot, efforts are underway to collect the petition signatures needed to trigger a constitutional review by the Florida Supreme Court.
If you’d like to know more, the public discussion, it will be held 6 p.m. Monday at Franco’s Italian Restaurant. Doors will open at 5:35 p.m. Seating for the dinner-time event is limited. Pre-registration is requested by calling 850-346-5199.