Florida’s campaign to restore voting rights to felons is gathering national media attention, and national financing. Now activists are trying to focus that energy to get the proposed constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot. WFSU reports on the grassroots campaign to gather 1 million signatures before the end of the year.
For Jermaine Miller of Tallahassee, the campaign to restore voting rights to Florida’s felons is personal. He has a felony conviction, and he wants to run for City Commission in 2020.
“Yes I paid my debt to society back in 2015. I think it should squash by next year. I think that they should just give me and more people’s rights back that are nonviolent,” Miller said.
But voting in the 2020 election won’t be possible for Miller unless the proposed constitutional amendment makes it on the ballot. That’s why he’s practicing his petition pitch.
“Their criminal record shouldn’t disqualify them. If you go into jail or prison, you paid your debt to society,” Miller said.
Under Florida law, felons are permanently barred from voting, holding office, and owning firearms, unless they get permission from the governor and his cabinet. They make up the state’s Executive Clemency Board.
Governor Rick Scott addressed a clemency hearing earlier this summer.
“Here’s the advice I give you: if anybody says you have a right to something, you actually don’t,” Scott said.
Previous administrations streamlined the voting restoration process. Scott ended the practice when he took office and added mandatory waiting periods.
“There’s no right to clemency," Scott said. "This is purely a board of mercy.”
After felons pay their debt to society, including time served, parole, probation, and fines, they wait for a minimum of five to seven years to come to this room. Their requests are up to the discretion of the Cabinet. Julia McCall runs the schedule.
“Number 16, Carl McClelland, is not here. He had vehicle issues,” McCall said.
“I deny restoration of civil rights and I deny a full pardon,” Scott said.
“Number 17, Bryan Newsom, is here,” McCall said.
Newsom comes to the podium and asks the Cabinet to restore his right to vote.
“I haven’t been able to vote in ten years. And my daughter has really gotten into politics and things like that. And next election she’ll be able to vote," Newsom said. "And so I’m asking that I am able to take and actually be able to vote with her at that time when she becomes eighteen.”
After a few other questions about Newsom’s record, Scott makes his decision.
“Ok. Ok, anybody have any questions?" he asked the other members of his cabinet. "I deny restoration of civil rights and I deny a full pardon. Good luck,” Scott said.
The American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t want Floridians’ voting rights to be up to the governor in this way. They recently promised $5 million to the 2018 ballot initiative, which the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is leading. The ACLU starting to organize, running petition drives across the state. And they’re aiming high, says Ronnie Newman with the ACLU’s Washington D.C. office.
“We need to get to a million. Those need to all be registered voters. And our deadline is December 31," Newman said.
Ronnie Newman is with the ACLU’s Washington D.C. office. State law requires 766,200 valid petitions to get an initiative on the ballot. By shooting for a million, they say they’re sure to reach the required number. Kirk Bailey is the political director for ACLU Florida.
“We believe we have strong chance at this ballot, or we wouldn’t have mobilized this effort that we have," Bailey said. "But it is going to take all of us and it is going to be a long six months to get there.”
Right now the effort has a little over 59,000 signatures. That number is actually lower than it was earlier this summer. Some of the petitions expired after being on the books for four years. Florida is an outlier, with some of the strictest felon voting bans in the nation. But Tallahassee campaigner Jermaine Miller says some Floridians like the system as it is.
“I had a bunch of people say no. I had a lady just last week saying she would not sign this petition. You know verbally cursing words, she don’t care about our rights," he said. "She loves the way it is and that’s how it should be she says,” Miller said.
Activists say they’re on pace to get the initiative on 2018 ballot. In the meantime, an estimated 1.5 million Floridians will keep waiting to get back their right to vote.