Charlotte, Florida – Robert A. McDuffie stood outside the Charlotte County Administration Center for months asking residents to help him regain a right he lost a decade ago.
Rain or shine, McDuffie never gave up as he requested signatures on petitions for a constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights in Florida for an estimated 1.5 million people, including him.
Enough petitions were gathered statewide to qualify last week for the November ballot.
Often joined by his wife, Jennifer, the McDuffies of Port Charlotte pushed the plight even as most people didn’t spend time to listen — or worse.
“Sometimes people just ignore you, and walk by you, like you’re not even there,” said Jennifer McDuffie.
Less often, the couple said residents they spoke with indicated there should be no change.
“Society has a picture of what a felon is, and it’s really a skewed picture,” said McDuffie.
In the end, the McDuffies said about a third of people they spoke with in the area, signed the petition. They estimate they got thousands of signatures.
“I don’t personally understand a system that penalizes you after you’ve done something wrong and paid your debt,” said McDuffie, who believes most people who can vote will support the Voting Restoration Amendment.
If approved by 60 percent of voters, the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions would be restored after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation — except for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
“Florida has the highest disenfranchisement rate in the country,” according to an analysis from Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “It is one of three states, along with Iowa and Kentucky, to permanently bar all citizens with felony convictions from voting.”
And, according to the center, about 6 million Americans aren’t allowed to vote because of their past criminal convictions. A quarter of them live in Florida.
As he petitioned people for their attention and support, McDuffie said he brought along a newspaper column from November focused on veterans who have lost their votes in Florida, too.
“U.S. veterans defended our democracy and the cornerstone of that democracy is the right to vote,” said Col. Mike Pheneger, former U.S. Army Intelligence officer and American Civil Liberties of Florida board member, in the column that ran in the Sun. “We should be defending that right here in Florida as well. And politicians should not be telling veterans they can’t vote.”
With 29 electoral votes, Florida can be a critical swing state, according to the Brennan Center. “Florida’s law disenfranchises 21 percent of its total African-American voting age population.”
African Americans tend to overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, according to the Associated Press, which reported increasing voting rights for felons has historically been seen to benefit that party.
“Florida’s ban on ex-felon voting — along with a voting list purge that took some non-felons off voting rolls — likely cost then-Vice President Al Gore the 2000 presidential election,” according to the AP.
Republican George W. Bush won Florida that year by just over 500 votes in an election that took weeks to figure out.
That was the last election McDuffie said he voted in — with a vote for Bush — which he said he now regrets.
“I have three, third-degree felonies,” said McDuffie, who became a felon through convictions a decade ago for sale of unregistered securities.
According to the AP, the last presidential election in Florida could have also had a different outcome.
“President Donald Trump carried Florida with fewer than 50 percent of the vote, beating (Democrat) Hilary Rodham Clinton 49 percent to 47.8 percent.”
In 2011, shortly after he took office Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, along with members of his Cabinet voted for “tough new rules for convicted felons” that tightened the rules of executive clemency.
Asked this week why the governor did that — and whether he would support the ballot initiative to restore felons rights to vote — Press Secretary Lauren Schenone provided the following statement: “This is a decision for each voter to decide on. The Governor has been clear that the most important thing to him is that felons can show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities.”
At least half the law enforcement officers the McDuffies said they came across while collecting petitions were supportive of the measure.
Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, who is former secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, agrees with it.
“Restoring a person’s ability to vote gives them an opportunity for redemption and a chance to be full members of their community,” McNeil said in a press release from Floridians for a fair Democracy, Inc., which put out the petitions.
Changes in clemency rules between Gov. Scott and his predecessors, affected who voted in the state.
For example, in the four years Charlie Crist served as governor, about 155,000 people regained their right to vote, according to the column from Pheneger.
But during almost seven years under Scott, only 2,807 people had their rights restored through Oct. 7.
Those ex-felons who got the right to vote under Crist occurred ahead of the 2008 presidential election, which former Democratic President Barrack Obama went on to win.
“Experts say many of those new voters were likely Democratic-leaning African Americans,” the Washington Post reported in 2011. “Many GOP leaders never forgave then-Gov. Charlie Crist for his move to make civil rights restoration almost automatic for most ex-felons.”
But for McDuffie, there’s more at stake than party politics.
“Restoring people’s dignity and rights is not a political issue,” he said.
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