Florida Faces Rocky Rollout To Restore Voting Rights For Convicted Felons

From NPR News Online:

Florida passed an amendment in 2018, promising to restore voting rights for over a million Floridians with felony convictions. But that hope turned to confusion soon after.

The state Legislature followed up with a law clarifying that in order to get their voting rights back, felons needed to pay off all fines and fees related to their convictions. Hundreds of millions of dollars in fines are owed across the state, including $278 million in Miami-Dade County alone.

But the same law also offers a way out. It allows the courts to modify the original criminal sentences to “no longer require completion” of things that were originally required. Under that law, money owed can be waived or lowered, and other requirements like community service hours can be reduced.

Now, the implementation is playing out in very different — and partisan — ways across the state.In counties under Democratic control, more people are getting their voting rights back. And in counties under Republican control, many potential voters are missing out.

Out of the four counties across the state that have launched similar programs, every one of them is Democratic-leaning. Those include Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties, which together include more than a third of the state’s total population. All of those counties voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and for Democrat Andrew Gillum in the 2018 governor’s race.

There is no corollary for Republican-leaning counties.

Read the complete article here.

Kentucky governor restores former felons’ voting rights

From CNN Online:

Newly sworn-in Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear restored voting rights for over 140,000 former felons in the state through an executive order, his office announced Thursday.

“My faith teaches me to treat others with dignity and respect. My faith also teaches forgiveness and that is why I am restoring voting rights to over one hundred forty thousand Kentuckians who have done wrong in the past, but are doing right now,” Beshear, a Democrat, said in a statement. “I want to lift up all of our families and I believe we have a moral responsibility to protect and expand the right to vote.”

Beshear also lamented the state’s voter access issues, asserting that Kentucky has the third highest voter disenfranchisement rate nationwide with nearly 10% of people, and nearly 25% of African-Americans, in the state not being allowed to vote.

The move fulfills a campaign promise after Beshear’s upset victory over former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in November. It was a key point in Beshear’s platform of progressive issues, including making Medicaid more accessible and replacing Bevin’s state board of education.

The order states that more than 140,000 Kentuckians were unable to vote despite completing their prison terms for non-violent felonies, and that Kentucky was one of two states that did not automatically restore voting rights to former felons. The order does not apply to those incarcerated for treason, bribery in an election and many violent offenses.

Read the complete article here.

‘A Proud Day’: Ex-Felons Clear Final Hurdle to Vote In Florida

From today’s New York Times:

One by one, they came before the judge in Miami, confident that in a few moments they would get a precious document clearing the way for them to get the right to vote.

The signed court order confirmed that, for the purposes of voter registration, they did not owe any court fines, fees or costs from their past felony convictions. The 18 people on the docket, some of them previously disenfranchised for decades, were clearing the final hurdle imposed by the state of Florida to restore their voting eligibility.

The packed courtroom burst into applause when Judge Nushin G. Sayfie told Carmen Brown, the first person called to the lectern, that she was granting her motion. Ms. Brown, 64, had served time for multiple felony convictions, including armed robbery with a deadly weapon. She put her hands to her mouth as tears welled in her eyes.

“Thank you so much,” she said through sniffles. “Thank you, your honor.”

A year ago, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure known as Amendment 4, restoring the voting rights of up to 1.5 million people with felony records. But earlier this year, the Republican-controlled State Legislature imposed restrictions requiring former felons — some of whom prefer to be called “returning citizens” — to first pay back outstanding legal financial obligations. In some cases, those amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

Read the complete article here.

Beshear’s gubernatorial win in KY is also a win for ex-felon voting rights

From today’s Vox News:

In November 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear (D) signed an executive order restoring the voting rights of more than 100,000 people with felony records in Kentucky. But in December of that year, Beshear’s successor, Gov. Matt Bevin (R), undid the executive order — just as easily taking away from ex-felons what the former governor had given them.

On Tuesday, though, Bevin lost his reelection bid to Democrat Andy Beshear, the former governor’s son. And the new governor-elect is poised to sign another executive order that restores voting rights to at least some people with felony records after they’ve served their sentences — potentially increasing the voter rolls by more than 100,000.

Kentucky has one of the strictest laws disenfranchising people with felony records, banning ex-felons from voting for life — unless they get a special reprieve from the state government — even after they finish serving out their prison sentences, parole, or probation. It is only one of two states, along with Iowa, with such a strict lifetime ban.

Read the complete article here.

Nevada governor signs bill to restore voting rights to convicted felons

From today’s The Hill:

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) on Wednesday signed into law a pair of criminal justice reform bills, including one that restores voting rights to convicted felons following their release from prison. 

“I just signed two criminal justice reform bills that will restore fairness and justice to thousands of Nevadans,” Sisolak said on Twitter following the signing. “I’m so excited about the positive impact these bills will have on our communities, especially communities of color.”

The first measure Sisolak signed, known as Assembly Bill 431, immediately grants the right to vote to felons released from prison or discharged from parole or probation. The law will replace one that granted certain felons the right to vote two years after their prison release, The Associated Press noted

Sisolak said the legislation, which is set to go into effect on July 1, will re-enfranchise about 77,000 state residents. 

The other measure Sisolak signed into law will streamline the process for sealing low-level marijuana convictions. The AP reported that the law allows a person to ask a court to seal records for any offense that has since been decriminalized. 

Read the complete article here.

Felon voting bill goes to Florida governor’s desk amid outcry

From today’s Associated Press News Wire:

Florida felons will have to pay court-ordered financial obligations if they want their voting rights restored under a bill sent to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday that would implement a voter-approved constitutional amendment.

The bill, though, caused outrage among Democrats who say Republicans are adding hurdles that don’t reflect the spirit in which voters approved allowing most felons to vote once they’ve completed their sentences. The amendment was approved with 64.5 percent of the vote and excludes murderers and sex offenders from the voting restoration rights.

“I believe Floridians are smart. I believe Floridians knew exactly what they were doing,” said Democratic Rep. Al Jacquet. “White, black, Hispanic, women, male, every Floridian understanding the value of their voice, the value of their vote. But we sit here and we begin to say, ‘Well, if you want to regain it, you should do this.’”

The ballot language on the amendment said rights would be restored after all terms of a sentence are completed. Republicans said that means court costs, restitution, fees and fines imposed by a judge. Democrats have said financial burdens shouldn’t be a barrier to voting rights restoration, especially if a judge converts them to a civil judgment.

Jacquet and other Democrats argued that the original intent of the felon voting ban was to repress the minority vote, because minorities historically have been disproportionately convicted of felonies.

Read the complete article here.

Amendment 4 restored voting rights to felons In FL–Now that’s back in doubt

From today’s NBC News Online:

Desmond Meade thinks he may have talked to more Floridians about felon voting rights than anyone else. Since 2009, he has put thousands of miles on his car each year, driving to every corner of the state talking to people about felon disenfranchisement.

By the time a formal campaign to amend the Florida Constitution and restore felon voting rights ended in 2018, it was clear to him which arguments worked with the largest share of people. Among them: second chances and redemption are moral and national values that Americans have a collective duty to uphold, and making way for redemption is the right thing to do.

Eventually, Meade, who is black, and Neil Volz, a white man convicted of felonies in connection with the former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, connected with a bipartisan funding and support network. It included the Koch brothers. And the redemption narrative — one that pushed the racist origins and racially disparate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws just beyond the spotlight — won a whopping 64 percent of deeply purple Florida’s votes in the November referendum on Amendment 4.

“The messaging was totally organic, totally grassroots,” said Meade, a convicted felon who after his release from prison earned a law degree. “It wasn’t a black or white thing, a conservative or liberal thing. It was a real people thing, people understood.”

But just as the campaign settled into victory, both the politics and the policy of felon voting have become unsettled again.

On Thursday, a committee of the Florida House of Representatives voted along party lines to advance a bill that could bar from the ballot box many of the estimated 1.5 million convicted felons who just regained the franchise.

Now the issue of voting rights for ex-felons is back in doubt. It looks as if the limited talk about race and partisanship during the Amendment 4 campaign created space for opponents to engage in debates about the bill’s language without attending to the racial impact of any legislative tweaks.

Read the complete article here.

Rap Sheets Haunt Former Inmates. California May Change That.

From today’s New York Times:

After spending more than seven years in prison for robbery and auto theft, Jay Jordan tried to get work selling insurance, real estate and used cars, but was repeatedly turned away, he said.

People with a felony record are often barred from obtaining professional licenses, and an opportunity to be a barber at a friend’s shop fell through for the same reason. A nonprofit program he started ran into trouble when a school sought to prevent him from meeting with students because of his criminal past — a history that began when he stole a car at 18, almost 15 years ago.

Under a bill now making its way through the California State Legislature, millions of people in the state who have misdemeanor or lower-level felony records could be spared those problems: their criminal records would automatically be sealed from public view once they completed prison or jail sentences. The legislation would not apply to people convicted of committing the most serious crimes, like murder or rape.

“There are so many of us who just want to be better, but are constantly turned down, turned away,” said Mr. Jordan, who is now project director for Time Done, a program that is part of Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit that advocates to make the criminal justice system less punitive.

In the United States, a record showing a criminal conviction or even an arrest that does not lead to a conviction can make it nearly impossiblefor someone to find jobs or apartments or to obtain professional licenses like those required in many states for barbers or real estate agents.

One in three Americans has a criminal record, according to the Justice Department, and a National Institute of Justice study found that having a criminal record reduced the chance of getting a job offer or a callback by 50 percent.

The legislation, introduced last week in the State Assembly, would make California — where an estimated eight million people have criminal records — the first state in the nation to automatically scrub the rap sheets of people whose records qualify. The law would apply retroactively, meaning that people arrested or convicted of various crimes dating back decades would have their records automatically sealed. The records would still be accessible to law enforcement agencies, but not to members of the general public, including potential landlords and employers.

Read the complete article here.


Inside the Unlikely Movement to Restore Voting Rights to 1.4 Million Floridians

From today’s Mother Jones Magazine:

On a muggy August day in 2005, Desmond Meade stood in front of the railroad tracks north of downtown Miami and prepared to take his life. He’d been released from prison early after a 15-year sentence for gun possession was reduced to three years, but he was addicted to crack, without a job, and homeless. “The only thing going through my mind was how much pain I’d feel when I jumped in front of the oncoming train,” Meade said. “I was a broken man.”

But the train never came, and eventually Meade walked two blocks to a drug treatment center and checked himself in. He got clean, enrolled in school, and received a law degree from Florida International University in 2014. Meade should have been the archetypal recovery success story­—­“[God] took a crackhead and made a lawyer out of him,” as he put it. But he’s not allowed to practice law. And when his wife ran for the Florida House of Representatives in 2016, he couldn’t vote for her. “My story still doesn’t have a happy ending,” he said. “Because despite the fact that I’ve dedicated my life to being an asset to my community, I still can’t vote.”

Meade was recounting his experience this summer at a gathering of ex-­offenders in Ocala, a conservative city of 60,000 in central Florida, 80 miles north of Orlando. Florida’s primaries were just days away, and there was an early voting center nearby, lined by signs for the candidates.

But 1.69 million Floridians like Meade aren’t able to participate in the 2018 elections. Florida bans people with felony records from voting, practicing law, or serving on a jury. Across the United States, 6.1 million ex-felons can’t vote. Some states prohibit people from voting while they’re on probation or parole or have unpaid fines, but Florida is one of only four, along with Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia, that still bar ex-felons from voting indefinitely unless their rights are restored by the governor. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Florida disenfranchises more citizens than Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee combined. Ten percent of the state’s adult population is ineligible to vote because of a criminal record, including 1 in 5 African Americans. Florida counts 533 different infractions as felonies, including crimes like disturbing a lobster trap and trespassing on a construction site. “Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation” is an unofficial slogan.

Meade, 51, speaks with the cadence of a preacher and has a physique befitting his former job as a bodyguard to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tupac Shakur. It was an oppressively hot day, and he and the 100 attendees—many of them older white men with tattoos who would not have looked out of place at a Donald Trump rally—took refuge beneath Spanish-moss-covered oak trees in a city park. He wore a black “Say YES to Second Chances” T-shirt. “This movement sits at the heart of a simple slogan: When a debt is paid, it’s paid,” Meade said. “We don’t care how you might vote or whether you vote at all, but every American citizen deserves that opportunity to at least earn the eligibility to vote again.”

In 2009, Meade became head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition(FRRC), and he was soon putting 50,000 miles a year on his car to help gather the nearly 800,000 signatures needed to place the Voting Restoration Amendment on the 2018 ballot. Amendment 4, as it’s called on the ballot, would automatically restore voting rights to as many as 1.4 million people with felony records who have completed their full sentences, but not those convicted of murder or a sexual offense. “It’s the largest enfranchisement of new voters since the Voting Rights Act,” says Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of StayWoke, an advocacy group started by Black Lives Matter activists. “It’s the biggest thing happening in the country with regard to voting rights.”

Read the complete article here.

For Former Felons, Voting Rights Could Be a Click Away Thanks to New Website

From today’s Roll Call:

Millions of new voters could register across the country, starting Tuesday, with the launch of an online tool meant to help former felons restore their right to vote.

The Campaign Legal Center’s website, restoreyourvote.org, attempts to guide users through a sometimes confusing jumble of state laws to determine whether past convictions or unpaid fines would keep them from the ballot box.

It is the latest salvo in a growing movement to politically empower formerly incarcerated people, a group that is disproportionately African-American. It is unclear how much of an effect such efforts will have on elections because they are more likely to infuse urban areas that already lean left with more Democratic voters. But organizers have framed the issue as a question of civil rights.

“There is a lot of misinformation, and the laws can be complicated,” said Blair Bowie, a Campaign Legal Center voting rights fellow. “This certainly is an opportunity for people with convictions to assert their voices in elections.”

Read the complete article here.