Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Voting rights advocates and civil rights attorneys cheered the Florida Supreme Court's unanimous ruling Thursday approving language of a proposed amendment that would restore voting rights for convicted felons, saying the decision is a major step toward erasing a lingering vestige of Jim Crow.
"It's a game changer," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who said the ruling could alter the state's political landscape by opening elections up for hundreds of thousands of new voters. If supporters collect the needed signatures to get on the measure on the 2018 ballot, it could energize Democratic-leaning voters in a year when Florida will elect a new governor and a U.S. senator.
The proposed measure still needs a total of 766,200 signatures before it can be placed on the 2018 ballot. The proposal has at leasts 71,209 so far, according to the state's Division of Elections. Also, more than 60 percent of voters would then need to approve it in before it becomes law and voting rights would be restored.
Despite those looming obstacles, the ruling was considered a major victory.
Justice Fred Lewis, who wrote the opinion, concluded the proposed ballot language was clear and unambiguous and didn't mislead voters.
"The title and summary would reasonably lead voters to understand that the chief purpose of the amendment is to automatically restore voting rights to felony offenders, except those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, upon completion of all terms of their sentence," Lewis wrote.
In many other states, the rights of convicted felons are automatically restored upon the completion of their sentences. In Florida, however, the system makes it extremely difficult for the state's 1.5 million felons without voting rights — about one quarter of the nation's total and the most in the U.S. — to regain their right to vote.
The proposed amendment would undo a policy change enacted by Attorney General Pam Bondi, Gov. Rick Scott and other Cabinet members in 2011 that requires most convicted felons to wait for five years after leaving prison before they can file a clemency petition, seeking to regain the right to vote. It's an expensive process that moves at a glacial pace.
Since 2011, only about 2,000 have had their rights restored. More than 10,000 are on a growing waiting list, according to a 2015 state report.
Scott, who was in Tampa on Thursday, was asked what he thought about the ruling, but he wouldn't say whether he agreed with it or how he would interpret it.
"We have a process in our state of how we can put things on the ballot and when those processes go through, everybody will have the opportunity to review that issue and decide if it is something they want," Scott said.
Bondi's office did not file a brief with the court on the ballot title and summary.
Those campaigning for the amendment said Thursday's ruling will boost efforts to gather the nearly 700,000 signatures they need.
"At the risk of sounding naive, I do believe our efforts are really going to have be ramped up in order to meet our goals," said Desmond Meade, an ex-offender who is leading the effort to restore felon voting rights.
Meade said his statewide group, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is willing to pay people to gather petition signatures if necessary. But Meade touted the growing momentum among Floridians to change the current system.
"People from Pensacola to Key West have been inquiring about how they can help," Meade said. "What I cling to most is the organic grass roots nature of this movement. Florida voters are getting very excited about this."
For now, Meade said, the thrust will be to engage churches, local activists and student groups to hit the shopping malls, parks and festivals this summer and fall to gather the necessary signatures.
If they're successful at getting the question on the 2018 ballot, it still won't be an easy sell to off-year election voters, said Smith.
That electorate skews older, whiter and more conservative, he said. And the Legislature and conservative groups are likely to offer a number of conservative amendments that could turn out a skeptical electorate.
Estimates vary on how many felons might vote if their rights were restored, Smith said.
"But even if it is 10 percent or 20 percent that's 150,000 to 300,000 new voters," he said.
Smith has studied the voting behavior of those targeted by Secretary of State Ken Detzner in 2012 when he ordered county supervisor of elections to send letters to 2,600 mostly black and Latino voters threatening to remove them from the rolls if they didn't provide proof of citizenship within 30 days.
Those voters proved more likely to vote in that year's election than counterparts sharing similar socio-economic characteristics, he said.
"If your rights have been taken away, you want them back. If you get them back you're going to take advantage of them," Smith said.
Kwame Akosah, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said the amendment would finally eradicate an unjust system first put into place during the state's Jim Crow era.
Recently, Wyoming, Maryland and Virginia have moved to reform, but Florida, which disenfranchises 20 percent of its adult African-American population, will have national reverberations.
"Florida has been an extreme outlier," Akosah said.
Times staff writer Paul Guzzo contributed to this story. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. [email protected] Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.