TAMPA – A panel of elected officials and advocates including Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren argued in a forum Friday that Florida should end its practice of permanently revoking the voting rights of people convicted of felonies.
But getting that done, they said, will take a constitutional amendment given the reluctance of the state Cabinet and Legislature to act on the issue.
"It's political," said state Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa. "We need to recognize why the disenfranchisement continues — it's overtly political and that's unfortunate."
Those on the panel advocated an amendment that's the subject of a petition drive to get it on the 2018 ballot. It would automatically restore voting rights to all felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including active sentences, parole or probation, except those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses.
Restoration of civil rights — including the right to run for office, own a gun and vote — is now available under the state Constitution only through executive clemency by the governor and Florida Cabinet, a difficult and expensive process that has resulted in only a trickle of individuals having their rights restored.
Some 1.6 million Floridians are currently disenfranchised, said Desmond Meade, head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Meade himself is one.
Although he is a graduate of the Florida International University law school, he said he's unable even to take the state bar exam because of felony convictions decades ago when he was a homeless drug addict.
Meade said it angers him when he meets disenfranchised veterans, citing the example of a 70-year-old World War II veteran who couldn't vote for 30 years after he came home from the war and wrote a bad check.
"There are thousands of veterans who come home and maybe they have PTSD or addiction problems, or they get in a bar fight," he said.
Democrats have commonly accused Republicans of opposing rights restoration because it would affect large numbers of black voters, likely to be loyal Democrats.
But Meade and others on the panel denied it was either a partisan or a black issue. Two-thirds of the Florida disenfranchised, Meade said, aren't black.
Warren said the criminal justice system, including the clemency process, needs reform and should consider "the long-term consequences of what we do every day in the system … the long-term impact of conviction and incarceration on an individual, a family, the community. … It comes back to fundamental fairness."
He said the greatest single obstacle for an individual seeking clemency is money — the cost of legal and court fees.
The panel at the Tiger Bay Club didn't include any opponents of the rights restoration measure.
The club invited several opponents including local elected officials, but none agreed to appear, said club President Vic DiMaio, who is a Democrat, and board member April Schiff, a Republican who made calls to invite individuals on the other side.
Schiff said she thought that was "because of the subject matter."
Tiger Bay clubs seek to be bipartisan, including requiring an equal mix of Democrats and Republicans on their governing boards and rotating the presidency between the parties. But the Tampa club has developed a reputation among local Republicans as leaning Democratic in its membership.
State Sen. Dana Young, who didn't attend the meeting Friday, said she hasn't read the amendment but is "skeptical that a wholesale granting of rights to convicted felons is good public policy."
To get on the ballot, supporters must gather 766,200 valid signatures of registered voters by Feb. 1. They currently have 63,148, according to the state Division of Elections web site.
The American Civil Liberties Union has pledged $5 million help pass the measure, which could include paying signature gatherers — the only realistic way the requirement could be met, said panelist Reggie Garcia, a lawyer who specializes in clemency cases.
Contact William March at [email protected]