Many Floridians, myself included, continue to fight for voting rights for ex-felons.

Recently, a group led by Desmond Meade, a former addict convicted on drugs and firearms charges in 2001 who went on to earn a law degree, appeared before the state Supreme Court, an important step in getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot. This ballot measure seeks to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences.

Florida is one of three states in the nation that permanently bars ex-felons from voting unless they receive clemency. Governor Rick Scott has strict standards for clemency and he alone can make the decision without explanation for his denial or approval. In Florida, it often takes as long as 14 years for a petition to be heard by the governor and still it may not be approved.

According to Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida, “nobody restricts former felons from voting rights, holding jobs and running for public office like the state of Florida.” 

Prior to Scott taking office in 2011, the process of voting rights restoration was a simpler process for those convicted of less serious crimes. After 2011, the state imposed a five-year waiting period and clemency hearing in front of the governor. Now, more than 20,000 ex-felons are waiting on clemency hearings and fewer than 3,000 individuals have had their rights restored.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, has called Florida “an outlier” when it comes to voting rights. “It’s time for Florida to leave its shameful past behind, and recognize that the full promise of American democracy can only be realized with the full participation of all citizens, across all communities,” it wrote in a recent report.

With more than 1.6 million ex-felons in living in Florida, that means that 1-in-10 residents of this state are denied that full participation.

For me, this fight for fairness, is personal. In 1995, I agreed to plead guilty to a federal crime of “structuring” and served 24 months probation. My rights were restored in 1998 by then Governor Lawton Chiles. In the years following that conviction, I’ve continued to build a successful career as a registered nurse and real estate professional.

I have been actively involved in the community and government. And I can and I am running for office. Something I could have not done without having my rights restored. I am a living example of why this law needs to be changed.

We will be out collecting the 766,000 signatures we will need to get this amendment on the ballot. As Meade told one Florida newspaper, those of us involved in this effort, “represent a wide spectrum of Americans — white, black, Latino, young and old, conservative and progressive.

People who believe in second chances.

Gerri Ware is candidate for Lee County School Board, District 4.

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