TALLAHASSEE — Civil rights and voting-rights groups have quietly launched a grass roots petition drive in Florida to make it easier for ex-felons to regain the right to vote.
Their goal is to ask voters in 2016 to change the Florida Constitution so that people who broke the law can vote again after completing their sentences, including probation.
"When you do wrong, you should pay," said Lashanna Tyson of Orlando. "I have paid. I've paid in full."
Tyson served 13 years behind bars for driving the getaway car in a 1998 Orlando convenience store holdup in which a clerk was shot to death. She was released from a state prison in 2011, the same year that Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet adopted new rules that require felons to wait at least five years after their release before they can even apply for full citizenship.
"Even though I'm out here, I still feel incarcerated," said Tyson, 44, a mother of three, including a daughter studying to be a doctor at the University of Florida. "I'm not an American citizen if I can't participate in voting."
Tyson has worked to turn her life around. She got a state real estate license and works full time.
Every three months, Tyson returns to the state Capitol to take part in a silent protest to call attention to the permanent voting ban, by covering her mouth with fabric in the pattern of the American flag and wearing a T-shirt that says "Let my people vote." The latest protest took place at a meeting where Scott and the Cabinet considered clemency petitions from dozens of ex-felons.
Florida is one of four states in which a felony conviction includes the permanent loss of civil rights, including voting, the right to hold public office and serve on a jury.
To regain those rights, a felon must petition the governor and Cabinet for clemency, a cumbersome process that can take 10 years or longer. The state has a current backlog of 20,000 clemency cases.
A statewide initiative on the 2016 presidential election ballot is the next step by supporters, including the ACLU, NAACP, League of Women Voters and members of the Florida Restoration Rights Coalition, led by Desmond Meade, a former drug addict and street criminal who became an honors graduate of Miami-Dade College and went to law school at Florida International University. Separately, state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, has filed a bill (SJR 208) to put a similar constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Meade has estimated that 1 million Florida residents are permanent "second-class citizens" who have served their time and pay taxes but can't vote.
Petition forms are being circulated to political clubs, churches and grass roots political groups by a Clearwater group called Floridians for a Fair Democracy.
The proposed amendment says: "Any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation." The automatic restoration would not apply to people convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.
To get the proposal before voters, supporters must climb a series of hurdles and collect more than 683,000 valid voters' signatures by February 2016.
"People are so impacted by this issue," Faith for Florida organizer Jerry Pena said.
Pena said it's a misconception that restoration of civil rights is of concern only to minorities. They are disproportionately affected, he said, but the majority of felons stripped of voting rights are white.
The organizers' first step is to collect signed petitions from 68,314 voters, 10 percent of the total, which would trigger a legal review of the petition language by Attorney General Pam Bondi, who spearheaded the 2011 change to a minimum five-year waiting period to apply for clemency.
"I believe you should have to ask, and there should be an appropriate waiting period," Bondi said four years ago. Scott embraced the idea, as did Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
The restrictions reversed the Gov. Charlie Crist-era policy that allowed a large number of former inmates, most of whom committed nonviolent offenses, to regain their rights. Under Scott, the number of offenders regaining their rights has slowed to a trickle.
Bondi's office did not directly comment on the new civil rights petition effort.
"The attorney general has not yet received any such proposal," a spokesman said.
During the final TV debate of his re-election campaign, Scott criticized Crist, his Democratic challenger, for supporting faster civil rights restoration for nonviolent felons.
"You commit a heinous crime, as soon as you get out of jail you get to vote," Scott said in the Oct. 21 debate. "That's wrong."
Crist accused Scott of lying and PolitiFact Florida rated Scott's claim Mostly False.
Lillian Hodgson, 64, a server at Woody's Restaurant in Tampa, said she spent seven years writing letters to state clemency officials, seeking to regain her civil rights after a drug possession case. She got her rights restored in 2007.
"It's a shame. It's awful," Hodgson said. "If a person goes to prison, they should be able to get their rights back. It doesn't make sense for somebody to hold back your rights for seven years."
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.