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Proposals To Restore Felons' Voting Rights Move Forward

Two proposals that would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences were approved Thursday by a Florida Constitution Revision Commission panel.

In a 6-2 vote, the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee approved a measure (Proposal 7), sponsored by former Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, that would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their prison time and completed any probation or parole requirements. Felons convicted of murder or sexual offenses would be excluded.

In another 6-2 vote, the panel endorsed a measure (Proposal 21), sponsored by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, that would also automatically restore felons’ voting rights after sentences are completed.

But Rouson’s proposal would exclude a larger group of felons from automatic restoration. It lists more than a dozen types of felonies that would prevent automatic restoration, including such things as carjacking and burglary.

Smith’s proposal is identical to a constitutional initiative launched by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a group that is trying to place the proposal on the November ballot by submitting petition signatures.

The group, which has already won approval from the state Supreme Court for the wording of its proposal, is close to reaching the ballot. It had submitted 750,723 valid petition signatures to the state as of late Thursday afternoon, just under the 766,200 ballot threshold.

Smith, who is sponsoring his measure along with former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, said he expects Floridians for a Fair Democracy to meet a Feb. 1 deadline for submitting the needed signatures and that the group has actually collected close to 1 million signatures. He said he would drop his Constitution Revision Commission proposal if the group is successful.

“No pride in the authorship, I would defer to the almost 1 million Floridians who have signed the petition at that point,” Smith said. “If the signatures are good, this gets withdrawn the next day.”

Smith said he wanted to keep his proposal, along with Rouson’s proposal, moving forward in case a last-minute problem occurs with the petition drive.

Rouson said it was “his inclination at this time” to withdraw his proposal if the voter petition drive is successful in reaching the November ballot.

He said he offered his proposal with a broader list of felonies as “a pragmatic compromise,” saying it could offset some of the opposition he expects the other amendments to attract if they get on the ballot.

Rouson also said he did not want to “confuse” voters by having two amendments on the same ballot. “But we want something on the ballot that’s significant and substantial to a number of citizens in this state,” he said.

Under the commission’s analysis, Smith’s proposal could open the opportunity for as many as 1.5 million felons to regain the right to vote, to run for office or to serve on juries. Rouson’s version would offer that automatic restoration path to an estimated 859,000 Floridians.

Advocates for voting-rights restoration argue that Florida has become an outlier among states by having so many felons blocked from voting, with their only chance to regain those rights through a cumbersome process that can take years and has resulted in an average of less than 500 restorations per year.

Some have underscored the impact on African-American residents, although Rouson said the current system is impacting all demographic groups.

“This is not a black issue,” Rouson said. “This is a human rights issue, and it affects all groups of citizens in the state.”

The proposals next head to the commission’s Declaration of Rights Committee.

Each measure would eventually need to win support from at least 22 members of the 37-member commission to win a spot on the 2018 ballot. Any constitutional measure on the ballot will need support from at least 60 percent of voters to be enacted.