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At Tampa Tiger Bay, advocates push for restoring felon voting rights

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

This summer, the Tampa Tiger Bay Club has bypassed its normal practice of asking politicians to come into its den. Instead, the civic-minded organization has invited speakers to discuss some of the pressing issues facing Florida.

This has often led to advocates and critics of an issue dueling it out during Tiger Bay forums. Not on this Friday, when the only disagreement among the panelists was the application of a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights for ex-felons.

Desmond Meade is the face of this movement.He is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the statewide organization attempting to collect approximately 800,000 signatures by next February to put the issue on the 2018 ballot. He’s transcended a rocky start to his life (which included getting booted out of the Army for stealing liquor, then being convicted of drug charges before ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison for possession of a firearm as a felon) to becoming a redemption story. After his release from prison, he enrolled in a drug treatment program, and graduated summa cum laude in paralegal studies from Miami-Dade Community College. He went on to earn a law degree from Florida International University.

But Mease still can’t vote or practice law in Florida.

“I sit here today as an example of why Floridians deserve a second chance,” he said at the beginning the program, earning a standing ovation from the sympathetic audience meeting at the Ferguson Law Center.

There are 1.68 million disenfranchised ex-felons in Florida, the most of any state in the union. Florida is one of only four states that doesn’t restore the voting rights automatically of citizens automatically after serving one’s time in prison (the others are Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, even though the governor there, Terry McAuliffe, restored those rights to more than 156,000 Virginians).

“Executive clemency is the governor’s constitutional power to grant mercy,” said Reggie Garcia, a clemency attorney and lobbyist based in Tallahassee, explaining why the only way to change the law is to change the state’s constitution.

The current law banning ex-felons from automatically having their voting rights restored goes back nearly 50 years, to the Constitution Revision Commission of 1968. That law was challenged in 2000 in the Bush vs. Johnson case. As Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren noted on Friday, while the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida concluded that the state’s felony disenfranchisement law was not intentionally discriminatory, and thus did not violate the U.S. Constitution, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed.

That panel ruled that the law continued to have a disparate impact on African Americans and concluded that “an original discriminatory purpose behind Florida’s felon disenfranchisement provision establishes an equal protection violation that persists . . . unless it is subsequently reenacted on the basis of an independent, non-discriminatory purpose.” The state appealed the panel’s decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc court, which vacated the panel’s decision and affirmed the District Court’s opinion.

“The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals twice has found (the law) was motivated by racial bias,” Warren said. “And it’s still on the books today. What are we going to do to change it is the question.”

Meade said that the perception that the issue is exclusively an African-American issue has made it political, because the perception is that to change the current law will favor Democrats. “But the reality is that African-Americans only account for a third of the people who are disenfranchised,” he said, “so while over 600,00 (ex-felons in Florida) may look like me, there are more than a million people that look like most of you all here.”

Felons in the state lose all their civil rights –  including the right to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury. To regain those rights, a felon must petition the governor and Cabinet for clemency, a cumbersome process that has roven to take 10 years or longer.

Under the proposed amendment, automatic restoration would not apply to people convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.

Warren says that sounds right to him, saying “we want to put reasonable limitations on people’s ability to get certain rights back.”

But others on the panel disagreed.

“There’s a time when they’re back in society, you oughta get your rights back,” said Democratic state Represenative Sean Shaw. “You shouldn’t be sitting at your house, not in jail, not able to vote, even if you’ve committed a capital offense.”  Shaw said he knew that there were some “heinous crimes” that people commit, but maintained that once a citizen is done with the criminal justice system, “that ought to be it.”

Meade said he stood by how the proposed amendment is worded, but admitted that “if these people are coming back into our community, we must give them every opportunity to successfully reintegrate, because it’s to our benefit that they do.”

Though there was hardly a dissenting voice opposing restoring the rights of ex-felons in Florida, that sentiment is out there.

Speaking to the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee last Tuesday, attorney general hopeful Ashley Moody said she thinks the current system in Florida works just fine.

“I would like to study it more before I give it a definitive answer, but I think there are historical reasons that we haven’t let felons vote, and I think that there are reasons for that,” she told the audience of fellow Republicans. “Now we have a process that they can obtain their rights after they’ve been convicted, and certainly I would invite that if they are eligible … so there’s a process for restoring rights and I think that the process that we have is fine

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has until February 1 to turn in the estimated 800,000 signatures needed to get the measure on the 2018 ballot next November. The Constitution Revision Commission could also vote to put the measure on the ballot.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at [email protected]

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