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  1. Opinion

Editorial: A good first step in restoring the right to vote

Voting booths stand ready for early voting at the Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center on Faulkenburg Road in Hillsborough County. JIM REED/STAFF
Voting booths stand ready for early voting at the Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center on Faulkenburg Road in Hillsborough County. JIM REED/STAFF
Published Jan. 23, 2018

Allowing felons a meaningful chance to reclaim their right to vote and rejoin civic life is edging closer to reality in Florida. On Tuesday the state announced that a yearslong petition drive to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot has garnered the required number of signatures. This issue has hung over Florida for years, as a broken system unjustly disenfranchises more than 1.5 million residents. This year, voters will finally have the chance to fix it.

Restoration of voting rights is automatic in many states. Not in Florida, where the Constitution bars ex-felons from voting or holding office until their civil rights are restored. Under Gov. Rick Scott, that process is cumbersome, inefficient and often leads to nothing but waiting. In seven years about 2,900 people regained their rights. That's a barely measurable number — not even a fifth of 1 percent — compared to how many the amendment could automatically help.

The initiative, led by Clearwater-based Floridians for a Fair Democracy, would amend the Constitution to automatically restore felons' voting rights after they have completed their sentence, including probation and restitution.

For backers of what will appear on the statewide ballot as Amendment 4, there is still hard work ahead. It will take a smart, far-reaching public education campaign to convince voters why restoring felons' civil rights is the just thing to do. The ballot language makes clear that those convicted of murder and sex crimes would not have their rights automatically restored. Voters should also understand that Amendment 4 is not a radical policy shift — Florida is the largest of only three states that permanently ban ex-felons from voting unless they are granted clemency, requiring the governor's personal support. Florida should join the mainstream.

But now that the citizen-led proposal has officially made the ballot, similar (and in some ways, competing) efforts by the Constitution Revision Commission and the Legislature are likely to pick up speed. The CRC could put a separate voting rights amendment on the ballot, creating the potential to confuse voters and make it that much harder for any of the initiatives to reach the needed 60 percent approval. The Legislature is considering several bills governing the rights restoration process. But it has rarely shown any interest in clemency in the past, and only now that a grassroots effort is putting the issue directly to voters are lawmakers taking notice.

True supporters of restoring felons' rights will eventually need to unite behind one amendment and be alert for schemes to undermine passage. There is plenty of precedent. When a citizen drive to expand solar power reached the 2016 ballot, the utility industry, sensing a threat to its monopoly, launched a competing and deceptive ballot initiative whose sole purpose was to restrict the growth of solar power by confusing voters. Don't forget that medical marijuana is available in Florida only because voters made it so. After that amendment passed in 2016 with more than 70 percent of the vote, a recalcitrant Legislature initially tried to make it harder for patients to obtain the drug.

People who have served their time and paid their debts to society have the right and responsibility to become productive, active citizens, and it is enlightened self-interest to let them do so. It is a milestone in itself that Floridians get to vote on restoring their voting rights. More than 1 million have already made their voices heard by signing a petition to put the amendment on the ballot. Now, figuring out the best way to proceed and avoiding ballot box traps should be the focus so that Florida does not miss the opportunity to bring 1.5 million deserving residents back into the fold of full citizenship.