Civic Groups Renew Call for Restoration of Felon Voting Rights

Civil and voting rights groups hosting a panel discussion in Lantana this weekend hope it will kick off a renewed discussion of Florida's restriction of felons' voting rights. An additional penalty on citizens who have otherwise paid their debt to society, the restriction has left one in ten voting-age Floridians without the right to participate in the democratic process.

One of the last vestiges of Florida's Reconstruction-era official racism, with a disproportionate impact on the African-American and Hispanic communities, felon disenfranchisement was largely eliminated in 2007 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. It was reinstituted in 2011 by Rick Scott -- one of his first acts in office.

Under the rules formulated by Scott, felons convicted of nonviolent crimes must wait five years before applying for restoration, and those convicted of violent crimes must wait seven.

In addition to undermining democracy, the panel's sponsors say, felon disenfranchisement presents an additional stumbling block to ex-cons' reintegration to society. "It's a knee-jerk reaction in a tough-on-crime climate," Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told New Times. "Voting rights help reentry and ultimately make communities safer."

Legislation that would make restoration of voting and other civil rights automatic for nonviolent felons upon completion of sentences has been introduced in Tallahassee by state Rep. Clovis Watson, Jr. (D-Gainesville). But chances of passage by the GOP-dominated Legislature are slim and, even if it were, a veto by Gov. Scott a certainty.

In the alternative, according to leaders at the ACLU of Florida, the League of Women Voters and Meade, voting rights activists are considering a citizen's initiative to place a restoration amendment on the Florida ballot in 2016. "It's a topic under serious discussion and research," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Meade said his group will be organizing "500 congregations statewide to stand for forgiveness and restoration." They also intend to "reach out to the one-and-a-half million disenfranchised to get their families to support restoration.

"Think of Jesus on the cross with the two thieves," Meade said. "'Today you shall be with me in paradise,' he told them. He didn't tell them to wait five to seven years. Repentance and forgiveness are immediate."

Restore the Vote - Disfranchisement Undermines Democracy Sunday, February 9, 2 to 4:30 p.m. Free and open to the public Lantana County Library 4020 Lantana Road, Lake Worth

Panelists: Howard Simon, Executive Director of Florida ACLU Desmond Meade, President, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Jackie Winchester, former PBC Supervisor of Elections Rep. Bobby Powell, District 88

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