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A long, hot summer of building support to grant felons the right to vote

Voter approval of Amendment 4 would end more than a century of lifetime disenfranchisement of felons in Florida.
More than 1.4 million convicted felons in could be affected by passage of Amendment 4 {Miami Herald file]
Published Jul. 19, 2018
Updated Jul. 19, 2018

The fate of about 1.4 million people will be at stake in November as Florida voters decide whether most convicted felons should have the right to vote.

With the election less than four months away, supporters are organizing a statewide campaign to win voter approval of Amendment 4, which got on the ballot after an effective grass-roots organizing effort that lasted for several years.

But passage is far from assured in a deep purple and closely-divided state where midterm or non-presidential elections typically draw low turnouts, where President Donald J. Trump remains popular, and where some voters may simply be turned off by a  fatigue-inducing list of 13 ballot questions.

"Grass roots got us this far, and grass roots will get us across the finish line," said Desmond Meade, the public face of a campaign known as Second Chances, himself a former addict and convicted felon who holds a law degree but cannot vote. "People going around and having conversations with their friends. That has been the secret to our success."

Any voter-approved change to Florida's Constitution needs to win support of 60 percent of voters.

An icon of progressive politics who supports the proposal, former American Bar Association president Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, says that is too high a hurdle in a state Trump narrowly won two years ago.

"The Trump people are not going to be people who want to be humane toward people who have already served their time," D'Alemberte said. "I don't see it winning. I never thought it would win. I hope I'm wrong about that."

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg says he'll vote for the amendment and predicts it will pass in November.

"People recognize that because of some indiscretion, you can't walk around with a scarlet letter for the rest of your life," said Brandes, an advocate for criminal justice reform in Tallahassee. "There has to be a way forward for people to move on and have a second chance."

Brandes said the proposal is vulnerable to an opposition campaign by a deep-pocket interest group that buys ads urging voters to oppose all 13 amendments.

The money raised for a statewide campaign in support of Amendment 4 has never been broad-based, and it has slowed to a trickle in recent months.

Through the first week of July, Floridians For A Fair Democracy, the supporters' fund-raising group, reported raising $5.5 million, but had about $300,000 in the bank, not nearly enough to pay for a statewide voter outreach effort.

Nearly $2 million in contributions came from the American Civil Liberties Union. Nearly $4 million in expenses went to a California company that hired petition gatherers to get signatures from registered voters — the critical step in any Florida ballot initiative campaign.

By comparison, Voters in Charge, a political committee pushing passage of Amendment 3, to require local control of gambling, has raised $17.5 million and spent $6.7 million so far.

The Republican Party of Florida has endorsed eight of the 13 ballot questions, but took no position on Amendment 4.

People on both sides of the issue say a campaign to win voter approval is not visible enough during a long, hot summer when contests for U.S. Senate and governor are getting much of the attention.

"We need community organizations, pastors on pulpits, any form to appeal to people's sense of good will," said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "They need to do it more and frequently."

Rouson voiced fears that opponents would inject race into the debate with Willie Horton-style ads, a reference to a racially-tinged ad tactic used by Republicans to discredit Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 race for president.

Studies have shown that Florida's felon disenfranchisement system has disproportionately affected African-Americans, but a majority of felons stricken from the voter rolls are white.

Rouson, who speaks often about his past addiction struggles, is a member of the Constitution Revision Commission. He once proposed a narrower version of Amendment 4 on the ballot, but he withdrew it when others protested that it would confuse voters.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, assured skeptics that Amendment 4 will be promoted aggressively in the months ahead.

"A lot of things are in the works," Simon says. "It's July."

In Florida, proposed constitutional amendments are listed at the end of the ballot, a layout that taxes the patience of voters who vote in person and not by mail.

"That's one of our burdens, to get people to vote the whole ballot," Simon says.

Another CRC member, Republican Don Gaetz of Niceville, a former state Senate president, opposes Amendment 4, calling it "too sweeping," and predicted it will fail.

"Restoration of  felons' rights has to be sold. It has to be explained," Gaetz said. "You have to answer objections."

Gaetz, who said he speaks often to civic groups in support of the eight CRC ballot proposals, said he hears little talk about Amendment 4 in Northwest Florida — an ominous sign, he said.

Pro-voting rights forces celebrated a huge political victory in April when the Florida Supreme Court approved the ballot language.

READ MORE: Florida's top court green lights voting for felons question

They created a web site, secondchancesfl.org, hired a full-time campaign manager and have begun targeting specific disenfranchised constituency groups such as veterans.

Advocates released a study in May by The Washington Economics Group of Coral Gables that said restoring voting rights to felons would make them more productive citizens and contribute $365 million a year to Florida's economy.

Supporters commissioned a statewide poll of 1,303 voters in March that showed 74 percent of voters favored the proposal.

A month earlier, a survey of 619 voters by the University of North Florida showed similar support, 71 percent, with 22 percent opposed.

A poll in June by the Florida Chamber of Commerce showed 40 percent support for the idea, 17 percent opposed, and 43 percent unsure. The poll of 605 voters framed the question by citing only the shorthand in the ballot title as it will appear on the ballot: "Voter restoration amendment."

Under the proposal, convicted felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including probation and restitution, would receive the right to vote without formal hearings that are currently required. People who are convicted of sex crimes or murder would be excluded.

Florida is one of three states, and by far the largest, that permanently disenfranchise felons. The others are Kentucky and Virginia.

The estimated 1.5 million felons in Florida must wait at least five years after completing their sentences to petition the governor for a restoration of civil rights, including the right to vote, own a gun, run for office or serve on a jury.

A person who is arrested during that five-year waiting period — even without a conviction — must wait five more years to apply.

Petitions for clemency are heard four times a year. The state has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases. Some applicants wait more than a decade for a hearing.

READ MORE: Florida's silent civil rights struggle

Gov. Rick Scott, whose personal approval is required for any restoration of rights, supports the current system, which is currently under attack in the federal courts.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker struck down the current restoration system as unconstitutional in March.

But Scott and the three elected Cabinet members who make up the Board of Clemency won a stay of Walker's ruling in April, hours before Walker's ruling would have required the state to implement changes.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta will hear oral arguments July 25 on whether the system should remain in effect or be scrapped. Numerous groups have filed legal briefs on both sides.

The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group, noted that Florida has 532 specific felony crimes on the books, and that a "stunning" 48 per cent of all felons disenfranchised nationally live in Florida.

The federal case may not be decided before November, leaving the fate of Florida's system in the hands of the voters.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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