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Florida could soon restore voting rights to over 1 million felony offenders

This Election Day, more than six million Americans will be unable to vote due to a felony conviction. A quarter of those people live in Florida, which has some of the most restrictive laws regarding felony disenfranchisement in the country. But a measure on the state ballot this November could restore voting rights to some felons who have completed their sentences. Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Demetrius Jifunza never thought he would find himself in prison. He says that, growing up in Sarasota, Florida, he was an average kid with a supportive family.

  • DEMETRIUS JIFUNZA:

    So you see how you switched it? You had 10 plus 5 here…

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    But as he grew older, he started hanging out with a tough crowd. When he was seventeen, he and three of his friends held up a fast food restaurant at gunpoint.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Did you have a moment before going into it where you thought, "I shouldn't do this"?

  • DEMETRIUS JIFUNZA:

    Yeah, actually. There were many moments like that. // it was one of those of trying to be something that you're not. I knew this wasn't me or whatever the case was. But I did not want to seem that I was the weak one. I– I needed some type of reputation or something like that. I just– some type of acceptance.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Jifunza eventually told his mother, who happened to be a police officer. He pleaded no contest to armed robbery and though he was a minor when he committed the crime, he was sentenced as an adult to almost four years in prison, plus two years' probation.

    Now 41, Jifunza has turned his life around. He's married with three children and works as a paralegal. He's also a pastor at his local church and is working on his master's degree in mental health.

    But he still faces difficulties because of his 1996 conviction. A recent job offer he received was put on hold because of it. He can't legally serve on a jury or hold public office. And there is one other right denied to him: voting.

  • DEMETRIUS JIFUNZA:

    When I walk through that front door and I look at my three kids, I can't fight for them using my voice. I can't cast a vote on anything. The school board election where my children go. You know, I can't decide who's gonna be on the school board.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Florida's disenfranchisement law dates back to just after the civil war, when the state rewrote its constitution.

  • MYRNA PÉREZ:

    Florida's 1865 constitution ended slavery, but it retained the provisions prohibiting African-Americans from voting.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Myrna Pérez is the director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice. It advocates nationally for justice system reform and voting rights, including the re-enfranchisement of felony offenders.

    Pérez says that while Florida's 1868 constitution allowed African Americans to vote, the state's legislators also found ways to deny them that right.

  • MYRNA PÉREZ:

    They expanded who could be disenfranchised and imposed a felony disenfranchisement in the constitution. The second thing they did was they expanded the specific list of crimes that would get one disenfranchised to include the crime of larceny.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The point, says Pérez, was to make voting illegal for those who committed crimes the legislators associated with newly freed slaves, such as vagrancy and petty larceny.

  • MYRNA PÉREZ:

    Those two things together virtually reinforced the prohibition on African-American voting.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    One hundred years later, Florida removed the language specifying types of lesser crimes that would bar a person from voting. But it still denies anyone convicted of a felony–be it as serious as murder or as relatively minor as possession of marijuana–from voting for life.

    But all that could change this November, when Floridians will vote on a ballot measure called "Amendment 4".

    If passed, it would automatically restore voting rights to all felony offenders who have completed their sentences–except those convicted of murder or a sexual offense.

    The amendment has national bipartisan backing. It's supported by the Brennan Center, as well as progressive groups like the ACLU and the League of Women Voters. It's also endorsed by conservative groups like the Christian Coalition and Freedom Partners, which also advocates for lower corporate taxes and entitlement reform.

    Some local organizations are for it as well, including the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The organization–which receives funding from groups like the ford foundation and the alliance for safety and justice–is led by people with felony convictions. They refer to themselves as "returning citizens".

  • NEIL VOLZ:

    We come from a place of understanding these issues personally.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Neil Volz, the group's political director, is a former republican congressional staffer and lobbyist. In 2006, he pleaded guilty in a congressional bribery case and received a felony conviction for conspiracy.

  • NEIL VOLZ:

    We fight the good fight on behalf of the million-plus family members and friends and directly impacted people in the state of Florida who know firsthand–what it's like to walk around with a felony conviction and try and get a job or try and get housing or any of the collateral consequences that ultimately come along with–a sentence like that.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What would it mean to have your voting rights restored?

  • NEIL VOLZ:

    I mean, for me, it would be the ability to be a full citizen in my community.

  • GOV. RICK SCOTT:

    Does your mom still use drugs?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Currently, returning citizens must apply to Florida's clemency board in order to have their rights restored.

  • GOV. RICK SCOTT:

    You've got a lot of domestic violence stuff.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    But critics argue that convincing that board is an onerous process. Before they can apply for clemency, those with felony convictions must wait five to seven years after they've completed their sentence, including prison time and probation.

    Then they must file a written application to the clemency board–which consists of only four people: the governor and three cabinet members. It has a backlog of over ten thousand cases. But the process doesn't end there.

    Many applicants must appear in-person before the board, which meets only four times a year and can arbitrarily decide whether or not to approve an application.

    Florida's republican governor Rick Scott heads the board.

  • GOV. RICK SCOTT:

    There's absolutely no standards. So we can make any decisions we want.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    During the hearing, the board can ask an applicant any question–on any subject.

  • BOARD MEMBER:

    When's the last time you had a drink?

  • BOARD MEMBER:

    How many children do you have?

  • APPLICANT:

    Six.

  • BOARD MEMBER:

    How many– how many different, uh– mothers to those children?

  • BOARD MEMBER:

    Y'all go to church?

  • BOARD MEMBER:

    You ever go take your parents to dinner?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    In Governor Rick Scott's first seven years in office, only about 3,000 out of more than 30,000 applicants regained their voting rights. By contrast, his predecessor, restored the rights of more than 155,000.

    In order to change that process, Amendment 4 needs to win with more than sixty percent of the vote.

    A recent poll by the University of North Florida shows that 71% of likely voters support the amendment–including 83%t of democrats and 62% of republicans.

    But not everyone is on board.

  • RICHARD HARRISON:

    We think that this proposed change is bad policy.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Richard Harrison is a Florida attorney and the executive director of Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, a privately-funded non-profit which advocates in favor of Florida's disenfranchisement law.

  • RICHARD HARRISON:

    You've got to go through the process, and you've got convince the clemency board and the governor that you've really changed your life around.

  • MYRNA PÉREZ:

    A person's right to vote has been a political football, where–your right to vote can depend upon who's in office and what they feel like that day. Part of the beauty of the amendment is that it sets forth a clear standard that people understand that doesn't have to deal with whim or discretion, but will actually be–an across the board applied rule.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    But Richard Harrison says a single clear standard is exactly what's wrong with the amendment.

  • RICHARD HARRISON:

    It makes no distinction. It doesn't treat that property crime any differently than somebody who shoots a liquor store clerk in a robbery. It says, we're gonna treat you exactly the same, and that doesn't make sense to us, and I don't think it makes sense to most reasonable people.

  • NEIL VOLZ:

    This amendment includes exclusions for people who–have murder f–convictions as well as people who have violent– sexual– felonies. But it's built on this concept that when a debt is paid it's paid. When somebody's able to reconnect with their community quickly, they're much less likely to re-offend. So you can see that on studies done by the right, studies done by the left, studies done in the middle.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    A 2012 study in the University of California at Berkeley's La Raza Law Journal supports this argument. It estimates that prisoners in states that restore voting rights after release are about ten percent less likely to reoffend.

    But recidivism is far from the only issue. There are political considerations too. In fact, Harrison says that Amendment 4 is a political ploy to upend Florida's famously divided electorate.

  • RICHARD HARRISON:

    If there's a million and a half convicted felons in Florida, and– in November, the day after the election they're suddenly all qualified to vote. Well, that's a million and a half new potential voters. Everybody on both sides of this issue seems to agree that that universe of new voters, if they actually go out and register, are probably gonna be more inclined registration-wise to–to favor the Democratic party.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What data is there to support that?

  • RICHARD HARRISON:

    None. You know, but–

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    I ask because–

  • RICHARD HARRISON:

    –everybody seems to agree. Um, I haven't heard anybody suggest that, you know, that universe of people are really a bunch of, you know, potential Republicans.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Neil Volz, a conservative, disagrees.

  • NEIL VOLZ:

    The truth is I am a 20-plus year conservative Republican. I bring that up not to make an issue of it, but to actually not make an issue of it. This issue isn't about politics, it's about people. It's about, you know, whether someone can vote and not how they vote

  • NEIL VOLZ:

    When a debt is paid, it's paid.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    If Amendment 4 passes, 2018 would be the last year in which Floridians like Demetrius Jifunza would be turned away from the ballot box.

    He applied to have his rights restored 16 years ago in 2002.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What has been the movement on your application?

  • DEMETRIUS JIFUNZA:

    I don't know. I haven't heard anything.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Not a thing?

  • DEMETRIUS JIFUNZA:

    No a word. Not even a phone call. I made a mistake when I was 17 years old. I'm home now. I've accomplished many, many things. I have a loving family. I'm doing everything that's required of me and I've beat all statistics. I just wanna ask if I can have my rights back.

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