Pinellas voters set pace as voting rights petitions keep piling up

Supporters facing Feb. 1 deadline to reach Florida’s 2018 ballot<br>
Supporters of voting rights for convicted felons filled a Cabinet meeting last December.
Supporters of voting rights for convicted felons filled a Cabinet meeting last December.
Published Nov. 15, 2017|Updated Nov. 15, 2017

Supporters of a statewide ballot initiative to restore the right to vote to many convicted felons in Florida continue to make headway, and they’re getting plenty of help from voters in Pinellas County.

More voters in Pinellas have signed valid petitions than in any other county, according to data on file with the state and county elections offices.

Through Tuesday, nearly 48,000 Pinellas voters had signed legally valid petitions, according to Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark’s web site. The figure changes on a daily basis.

Florida is one of three states that permanently revokes the civil rights of convicted felons, including the right to vote. After completing their sentences, felons must wait for at least five years before they can petition the governor and Cabinet for restoration of civil rights, a slow process that can take many years.

An estimated 1.5 million Floridians have been permanently blocked from voting.

The voting restoration amendment would be added to the Florida Constitution if 60 percent of voters approve. The amendment would not apply to people convicted of murder or sexual offenses. They would continue to be permanently barred from the ballot box unless the governor and Cabinet restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Thousands of Floridians wait decades to regain the right to vote

Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a Clearwater-based political committee spearheading the petition drive, faces a Feb. 1 deadline to submit 766,200 valid signatures to reach the November 2018 general election ballot.

The group’s largest financial backer is the American civil Liberties Union, which so far has contributed $1.2 million to the effort. Most of that money has been paid to PCI Consultants, a California company that hired workers to collect signatures.

Howard Simon, executive director of tthe ACLU in Florida, said Pinellas County is extremely fast at verifying and reporting petitions, often within two weeks of them being submitted.

Simon said petition gatherers are concentrated in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, and that some large county election supervisors take the full 30 days that they are allowed by law to verify signatures.

Pinellas is the most “purple” large county in Florida, with almost equal numbers of registered Republicans and Democrats.

The state Division of Elections web site on Wednesday showed that 371,017 voters’ signatures have been validated, or slightly less than half the required number of signatures. Supporters say an additional 150,000 signatures are being reviewed by county elections supervisors.

To reach the ballot, supporters also must collect a certain number of signatures from a majority of the state’s 27 congressional districts. According to the state web site, there are two congressional districts where supporters have reached their target.

One is the 13th District in Pinellas, which is represented by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, who as governor in 2007 championed a streamlined civil rights restoration process.

Crist’s successor, Gov. Rick Scott, and his fellow Republicans on the Cabinet scrapped Crist’s changes and replaced it with a five-year waiting period in 2011.

The other congressional district where supporters have collected enough signatures is the 20th in southeast Florida, represented by Democrat Alcee Hastings of Miramar.

Candidates in both parties can expect to face mounting pressure to take sides on the amendment if it reaches the ballot.