Florida restores voting rights to convicts

Florida restores voting rights to convicts

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An estimated 1.2 million Florida residents who have served time in prison have regained the right to vote, thanks to passage of a new state constitutional amendment.

Amendment 4 received 65% of the vote, according to the Miami Herald, changing 150-year-old language in the state’s constitution.

Previously, Florida was one of just four states in the US that automatically and permanently revoked voting rights from anyone who had been convicted of a felony-level crime.

“We celebrate one of the largest expansions of the franchise in our nation’s history,” wrote ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon in a statement.

Previously, formerly incarcerated Floridians had to wait five years after their release, then apply for clemency from the governor’s office. Since 2011, Republican Governor Rick Scott has only given the vote back to about 2,000 people.

To be eligible, former prisoners must complete their sentences and all the terms of their release, including probation. The language of the amendment excludes those convicted of murder and serious sexual offenses, but supporters still estimate that over 1 million Floridians who have served time in prison would become newly eligible to vote.

A cross-party, grassroots coalition gathered about 800,000 signatures to get the amendment on the 6 November ballot. The measure needed 60% to pass.

Supporters of the amendment argued for months that preventing former inmates from voting unfairly disenfranchised men and women who had repaid their debt to society, and prevented them from fully integrating back into society. They also argued that such laws disproportionately impact African Americans.

The amendment was endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the Koch brothers-backed, conservative group Freedom Partners.

“If we want people returning to society to be productive, law abiding citizens, we need to treat them like full-fledged citizens,” Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden wrote in his endorsement.

The move also attracted significant star power from singer John Legend and Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman.

Across the US, a patchwork of laws impacts formerly incarcerated people from voting. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to their criminal records.

In Florida, language stripping the vote from felons was written into the state constitution 150 years ago, during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, as a means to prevent African Americans from voting.

With passage of the amendment, Florida joins the ranks of dozens of American cities and states that have been relaxing restrictions on voting for former prisoners in recent years. In April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo restored the voting rights of an estimated 24,000 people who are currently on probation or parole.

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