Time is running out on petition campaigns


Sometimes an idea sounds really good, but you just know there’s little or no chance of it getting through the political process.

That’s what we’re seeing with a constitutional amendment that would restore the voting rights of convicted felons, after they get out of prison and complete any periods of probation. There are three ways to do it – the Legislature, the Constitution Revision Commission and a public-petition campaign – but its prospects appear dim.

Time is running critically short on the public-initiative campaign. The CRC doesn’t seem overly interested, but the idea has a significant legislative ally.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, last week introduced a bill (SB 1654) that would make it easier for ex-cons to get back their voting rights. Instead of taking several years to beg the governor and Cabinet, non-violent offenders could petition circuit judges when they meet minimal criteria.

Lee, a former Senate president, is also a member of the Constitution Revision Commission, where former state Sens. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale have sponsored the amendment. Lee’s legislative bill has a House companion by Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Jacksonville Beach.

The idea has been around for a long time and there are several good arguments for letting convicted felons vote, excluding sex offenders and violent criminals. The taxpayers pay many millions of dollars to educate and rehabilitate them, providing everything from drug and alcohol treatment to basic literacy and job skills — but then we tell them they can’t be real citizens again.

Why not? What does society gain from saying, “We want you to become a productive citizen, but we’ll continue punishing you just because we can?” You’d think it would be just the opposite, that we’d want to tell former prisoners, “Good, we want you to shed as much of your old lifestyle as possible….”

Another good reason for junking the current prohibition is that Florida has such a bad record of implementing it. In election after election, the state has sent counties lists of convicted felons to purge from the voting rolls, only to find inexcusable error rates.

Hey, it’s not like Florida prisons are just teeming with felons who dream of wearing one of those red, white and blue “I Voted” lapel stickers on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. But if some do, what’s the harm?

Are we afraid they’ll vote for shady characters – unlike the rest of us, who’ve put such a succession of high-minded philosopher kings in public offices?

Most former inmates would probably vote for Democrats, which is why Gov. Rick Scott and the current Cabinet reversed ex-Gov. Charlie Crist’s policy and made it harder for felons to get back their voting rights. Crist was a Republican, but not enough to hurt, when he relaxed the clemency policy years ago.

The main argument against restoring former inmate voting rights is simply, “We don’t have to.” It’s cheap and easy for politicians to look tough on crime.

That attitude has been the impetus for previous public-initiative petition campaigns for constitutional amendments, like the state lottery, medical use of marijuana and the ban on workplace smoking.

But in this case, prospects of passing the thing seem dicey, at best, whether it comes from the CRC, the Legislature or the voter-signature campaign.

The deadline for verifying 766,200 voter signatures, drawn from a specified range of far-flung congressional districts, is Feb. 1. Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the campaign committee conducting the petition effort, currently has 692,134 signatures certified and on file with the state Division of Elections. There are probably thousands more still being processed, but proponents need to verify at least 74,066 more in less than three weeks.

If the amendment is put on the ballot – by the CRC, Legislature or petition – it will require 60 percent public approval at the polls on Nov. 6. In other words, for every “No” vote, supporters will have to turn out 1.5 “Yes” votes.

That requires empathy. Voters need to feel this thing means something in their lives, like the idea of winning the lottery or snuffing out indoor smoking was real and personal to the typical Floridian.

The idea of restoring voting rights for felons doesn’t have that appeal. The image of convicted felons is menacing, not sympathetic, and it will be hard to persuade 60 percent of the voters that we all have any personal interest in doing anything for them.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat reporter who began covering state government in 1969. He can be reached at bcotterell@tallahassee.com

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