Florida voters will determine the fate of nearly 1.6 million ex-felons across the state in 2018. On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court approved the language of the Voting Restoration Amendment and certified the more than 70,000 petition signatures in support of the constitutional referendum to allow ex-felons the right to vote.
For nearly 200 years, Florida has had one of the strictest voting regulations in the country when it comes to released felons. Florida is one of three states in the country which disallows ex-felons who have served part or all of their sentences the right to vote for the rest of their lives.
The language would not allow those convicted of sex crimes or murders to vote.
When Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, he largely reversed the policy to restore felon voting rights instituted under former Gov. Charlie Crist. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi made it so felons would have to wait at least five years after finishing their sentences before they could apply to vote again.
Over 10,000 requests currently sit in Scott’s office, waiting for the seal of approval, but the governor and Bondi have been notoriously slow in restoring felon voting rights, only approving around a quarter of those applications so far.
Now that the Supreme Court has approved the ballot language, it means it is all geared up and ready to go for 2018 as long the initiative gathers 700,000 signatures in support of the measure.
Thursday’s ruling was a long time coming for supporters of the amendment, who have tried for years to change the way Florida handles restoring felon voting rights.
Democrats had filed proposals in the state legislature to expand voting rights to ex-felons. Florida House Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, filed a bill in February to reinstate voting rights to felons three years after they've served their sentences.
HJR 565 would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to automatically reinstate the voting rights of individuals who have "paid their debt to society" three years after completing their sentence.
“Thousands of Floridians—from across the state and from different backgrounds have added their names to express their support for second chances,” Kirk Bailey, ACLU of Florida Political Director said. “Now the work of gathering signatures and mounting a successful campaign to change the Florida Constitution begins in earnest. We look forward to Florida voters being given a chance to bring our state’s voting rules out of the 19th century and into the 21st.”
Florida Rights Restoration Coalition president Desmond Meade said the day was one to remember and an important one for Floridians just trying to get another shot at a normal life.
"Today is a momentous day,” said Meade. “The Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Voting Restoration Amendment to move forward marks a key milestone on our path to a stronger democracy and a fairer Florida. Those who have paid their debt to society deserve a second chance.”