TAMPA — Under a baking sun, church leaders and voting activists gathered Monday outside the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office to call for a constitutional amendment in Florida to restore felons' voting rights.
Many were given white shirts that read: "Let my people vote.''
Florida, along with just two other states, permanently bars felons and ex-felons from voting. They can petition the governor and state Clemency Board to get that right restored, but relatively few try. There are currently about 1.5 million people in Florida who cannot vote because of past offenses.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, was among the group of 20 people outside the elections office Monday. She called the bar "a stain on Florida.''
"The state is never going to reach its full potential unless its citizens get their full potential," said Castor, who was joined by members of the Hillsborough County chapter of the NAACP, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the League of Women Voters.
Castor said change needs to come from the governor and Legislature.
In 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Cabinet voted to make it easier for felons to regain their civil rights, but those reforms were changed in 2011 when Gov. Rick Scott and a different Cabinet voted to require felons to wait at least five years after serving their sentence to reapply.
Between 2007 and 2010, while Crist was governor, 155,314 offenders had their rights restored. Between 2011 and 2014, under Gov. Rick Scott, only 1,551 people got their voting rights back.
Benny Small, president of Hillsborough's NAACP chapter, said he is concerned that the law restricts people who are nonviolent offenders and have already served their time.
"Law enforcement, faith leaders, employers and a large majority of Floridians from all walks of life support people being able to earn back their right to vote because it gives them a stake in the community and makes it less likely they will end up back in prison," he said.
The Rev. James T. Gold, pastor of Ward Temple A.M.E. Church in Bradenton, said people of faith should speak out against the law. He said it's not fair to punish people forever for a crime.
"If you have served the penalty of your crime, you should have your rights restored," he said.
Contact Ariana Figueroa at [email protected] or (813) 226-3350. Follow @ArianaLFigueroa.