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In Florida, Voting Rights For 1.5 Million Felons Are On The Ballot

This story was reported on our election road trip to states across the country ahead of the 2018 midterms. Check out all of our election coverage.

In a strip-mall storefront along a busy road in south Tallahassee, Dale White is getting ready to open up shop.

It’s going to be the third location of his thrift store, The Living Harvest, which sells used goods to fund re-entry programs for former felons. The store is managed and staffed by recently incarcerated people, who today are helping vacuum the carpets and display merchandise like china plates and sofas.

White, the founder and president, is also a felon. He was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison after multiple DUIs and was released in 2000. Since then he’s gotten sober, and started the nonprofit to help others turn their lives around by finding housing and employment.

“I’m a big person about second chances, because I know people change and I know the way I was,” White says. “If those people had those opportunities they wouldn’t be going back to prison, and our community would be better for it.”

Part of White’s turnaround was winning back his right to vote. Florida is one of only four states that bars felons from voting after their sentences are completed. Under the current system, felons have to wait at least five years and petition a state board to gain back their rights.

But on Nov. 6, voters will decide whether to amend their state constitution and automatically grant the right to vote to more than 1.5 million people convicted of a felony. If it passes, Amendment 4 will automatically restore voting rights to former felons upon completion of their sentence, unless they were convicted of murder or a sex crime.

White has already cast his ballot in favor of Amendment 4 — something that, as a former felon himself, he can only do because he successfully petitioned the state to restore his voting rights. He says it helped him feel like a part of society again.

“When I was able to finally return home and try to rebuild my life, part of that wanting to be part of the community couldn’t happen unless I was able to vote,” he says.

In 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Scott rolled back changes put in place by his predecessor, Democrat Charlie Crist, making it harder for nonviolent felons to regain their rights.

His administration has also granted fewer felons clemency: Scott’s administration has approved restoring voting rights to just over 3,000 people, compared with more than 150,000 under Crist.

Mark Schlakman, a Tallahassee lawyer who advised former Gov. Lawton Chiles on the issue of clemency, says the system is broken.

“Florida right now has a rapidly expanding population of former offenders that have no reasonable likelihood of regaining their voice in governance. That calls into question, at least in principle, the integrity of Florida’s overall elections process,” Schlakman says. “Whether one is a Republican or Democrat, that seems to be antithetical to our form of government.”

Today over 1.5 million people in Florida — more than 10 percent of the adult population — can’t vote because of a past felony conviction.

Eddie Caine is one of them. He’s been out of prison since 2003.

Caine remembers how it felt to go with his family to the polls on Election Day, unable to cast a ballot.

“I sat in the car. I didn’t even go in the building,” he says. “I felt deprived, I felt ashamed, I felt ignorant. It was a real bad feeling and I haven’t even really forgiven myself for feeling like that.”

Caine says he wants to get his rights back, but the process is intimidating, and he knows it could take years.

“All of us deserve a chance to show that we can live decently, we can live amongst other people,” he says. “So I made a commitment not to go back to prison but I also want to make a commitment to be a productive member of society.”

Richard Harrison is a Tampa-area lawyer and founder of Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, a group that is against Amendment 4. He says not all felons deserve that chance.

“We should not assume that all 1.5 million felons and everybody sitting in Florida state’s prison system have all become model citizens,” says Harrison. “Clemency is not an entitlement, it’s not a right — it is an act of mercy by the state of Florida.”

Harrison says it should probably be easier for nonviolent offenders to get their rights back, but giving what he calls “blanket clemency” with a constitutional amendment would be going too far.

Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil agrees with Harrison that it’s appropriate to take away some rights from violent criminals, like keeping sex offenders away from schools or restricting felons’ access to guns.

“But just the fundamental right to vote, there’s no proof that taking their right to vote away deters them from any other crime whatsoever,” McNeil says.

McNeil points to research from the state Parole Commission that showed ex-felons whose right to vote was automatically restored under Crist were less likely to commit new crimes.

He says taking away someone’s right to vote only serves to diminish their sense of being a citizen.

“When people feel like they’re hopeless and they’re shut out of their basic fundamental rights as a citizen,” McNeil says, “they’re more apt in my opinion to give up and turn to a life of crime, because there’s no alternatives left to them.”

That’s something James Sawyer says he has experienced personally. Sawyer is a Vietnam War veteran who says he turned to drugs to help cope with traumatic experiences he had during the war. That began a downward spiral that landed him in prison after he tried to buy crack cocaine from an undercover police officer.

Sawyer says when he got out of prison, not having the right to vote made him feel powerless.

“I used to have ideas about who I wanted in office to enact certain things, but I never got involved because I said, ‘Well I can’t make a difference,’ ” he says. “It kinda made me feel like, ‘Well if I’m not a citizen, why act like one?’ ”

Sawyer recently got his rights restored. And while he’s proud to have the right to vote, he says he’s not sure if he’ll use that right. He hasn’t made up his mind about whether or not to vote in November.

“It’s kind of like a victory for me, and it’s part of a bucket list,” he says. “I’m not that political, and I’m not sure if I’ll vote or not. I just might.”

Several recent polls have shown public support for Amendment 4 above the 60 percent threshold it would need to pass.

If it fails, however, voting rights advocates have another strategy: A group of former felons is suing the state in a case currently before a federal appeals court. Supporters of the amendment are hoping they won’t have to fight that legal battle much longer — if they win at the ballot box in November.

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