Ex-felons in Florida need their voting rights back
By Congressman Charlie Crist
I am a proud Floridian.
For far too long, however, our state has had the dubious distinction of being one of only three states that permanently bans non-violent, ex-felons from voting.
The disenfranchisement of 1.5 million of our fellow citizens is shameful, a holdover of Jim Crow-era policies that had no place in our democracy more than a century ago — let alone in 2018.
And although a recent court ruling found Florida’s system unconstitutional, we still do not have automatic restoration or an easy path to clemency through the courts.
I was Florida’s attorney general and running for governor in 2006 when I was asked by the Associated Press about felon disenfranchisement in our state. I was in favor of fixing the process. Because these men and women have paid their debt to society. Because limiting the rights of others undermines our democracy. Because it’s morally right.
For example, between 2012 and 2016 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported 6,759 felony convictions for driving with a suspended license. Should someone who has paid his debt to society for driving with a suspended license lose his right to vote for the rest of his life?
Once elected Florida’s governor, my path was clear: I would do what I could to give folks a second chance.
The right thing is rarely the easy thing, and we were in for an uphill battle.
While we were not able to get fully automatic clemency for non-violent offenders passed, our Executive Clemency Board was able to put in place a new process that led to the restoration of civil rights for 155,315 Floridians. It represented the greatest restoration of voting rights in any state until last year when my friend, then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, surpassed this record by taking the commendable action to restore the voting rights of 156,221 individuals in the commonwealth.
Yet our efforts in Florida impacted only a fraction of the 950,000 disenfranchised ex-offenders in Florida at the time. The number has climbed to 1.5 million in the past decade.
This dramatic rise is due in large part to disappointing steps taken by the Republican Cabinet in 2011, reversing the progress we made. Now, Floridians have the chance to take us further on the path we started down in 2007.
With the support of more than a million signatories, a citizen-driven petition for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore the rights of ex-felons once their sentences are completed has met the threshold needed to appear on the 2018 ballot.
However, the fight is not yet over and the battle not yet won. Amendments to the Florida Constitution require 60% voter support. Come November, the power is now in the hands of the people — where it belongs.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it best when he stated: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When your brother, sister, parent, partner, neighbor, child, co-worker or friend is stripped of their constitutional rights in this manner — for life —the integrity of our representative democracy is weakened.
Instead of allowing justice to continue being denied, let us give our fellow Floridians a second chance and restore their civil rights.
To view the original op-ed published by USA Today, click here.
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