On Florida’s General Election ballot, voters are being asked to decide whether most convicted felons in the state should have their voting rights restored. Passage of proposed constitutional Amendment Four could change the lives of nearly one-and-a-half million people.
Ben Calloway of Pensacola would benefit from passage of Amendment 4.
“Yeah, I was 18 when I got in trouble the first time,” said Calloway, recalling his arrest on marijuana possession.
Calloway is now 32 years old. But, that arrest over the summer after graduation from Washington High school came as he was preparing for delayed entry into the U.S. Marine Corps. Ultimately, he lost the opportunity to enlist. It was a big blow to his life plan.
“Boy Scouts, ROTC; you know everything was gearing up for this moment,” he said. “And, when I couldn’t fulfill my dream, I felt a little lost and turned to drugs. It wasn’t the best move, but it’s what I did.”
Eventually, this difficult time in Calloway’s life resulted in a second felony drug arrest. He was convicted and spent a year-and-a-half in prison.
Since his release five years ago, Calloway has been in a holding pattern, waiting to become eligible just to file an application for a chance to go before Florida’s Executive Clemency Board.
“Clemency is an act of mercy,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott as he opened the clemency board meeting in September. “There’s no right or guarantee to clemency. Our decisions are based upon many facts and circumstances."
Scott pointed out that cases can only go forward if he wants them to, with no explanation required.
“If I decide I don’t want to move forward, the others don’t have to take a position or vote,” stated the governor. “If I decide to make a motion to go forward, then two of the others will have to agree or it doesn’t pass.”
“Honestly, the system of the clemency board itself is one that; it’s pretty astonishing to watch,” said Sara Latshaw, deputy political director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “It feels like it’s up to the whim of the governor.”
Latshaw suggests the process is too subjective, with no apparent parameters to govern how a person’s rights are restored. “So, if the governor doesn’t feel like doing it on that day, then you’ll have to go back to the end of the line.”
For decades, ACLU has been part of the movement to restore voting eligibility to people who’ve lost it because of a felony conviction, through legislation and litigation.
In this case, the organization helped a citizen-led initiative collect over a million petition signatures to get Amendment 4 on the 2018 ballot.
“Floridians believe in second chances; we believe in second chances, that when someone has completed all of the terms of their sentence, that includes probation, parole, paying back fines and fees, that they’ve earned back their eligibility to vote,” Latshaw asserted.
Under then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, the clemency board restored rights to more than 155,000 former felons. Seventy-thousand regained their voting rights under Gov. Jeb Bush.
However, in 2011, Gov. Scott instituted a minimum five-year waiting period just to apply, which has slowed the process to a crawl. During his eight years in office, only about 3,000 of approximately 30,000 applicants have had their rights restored.
Earlier this year, a federal court judge declared the process unconstitutional; a ruling is pending from the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals.
“It’s time to fix a broken system” begins a campaign ad from the ACLU-backed grassroots movement Second Chances Florida. It continues by pointing out that Florida is one of only four states with a lifetime ban on voting for anyone convicted of a felony, even after they’ve completed their sentence.
Excluding those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, Amendment 4 will restore a person’s eligibility to vote after they’ve served their time.
ACLU is also a big supporter of the political committee Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which has collected nearly $18 million to campaign for Amendment 4.
“The organizations, the faith leaders, law enforcement, veterans; we have people that are working on this campaign from all walks of life, from all political parties,” said Latshaw. “Making past mistakes, making bad decisions transcends race, transcends political parties, and I think that’s why so many people are working to pass this amendment.”
Recent polls show the initiative exceeds the 60 percent approval needed for passage. A University of North Florida poll found that 71 percent of Florida voters would support the ballot initiative.
There is some opposition.
Floridians For A Sensible Voting Rights Policy, formed by Tampa attorney Richard Harrison, is the only organized challenge to Amendment 4. The Florida Family Policy Council, headed by John Stemberger, is also encouraging Floridians to vote it down, saying it goes too far.
“While the amendment does create an exception if you had a felony because of murder or because of a sexual crime, it does allow every other violent criminal to get their rights restored,” Stemberger said.
“We believe that when a debt is paid, it’s paid,” countered ACLU’s Sara Latshaw.
“We should welcome people back into our community and hope that they will vote, and hope that they will show up and have a job and have a family and be a productive member of our community.”
Since his release five years ago, that’s what Ben Calloway has been trying to do, working in his family business and getting his personal life in order.
“You know I just want to be a normal person,” said Calloway of his desire to regain his voting rights. “I don’t even feel like a person. I’m expected to follow all these rules and be in society and everything and yet I’m not allowed to contribute anything.”
To learn more about Amendment 4 and the other amendments on the ballot, check out a full guide created by the League of Women Voters of Florida.