As 2017 winds down, signature gatherers across Florida are on a last push to qualify the Voting Rights Restoration Initiative for the 2018 ballot, an initiative that, if it passes, would restore voting rights to well over a million Floridians.
The campaign needs just over 766,000 certified signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot. Since many signatures in any such drive are ultimately disqualified, campaigners are aiming for 1.1 million signatures statewide that they can take to the division of elections in Tallahassee, the state capital, for review and certification by the February 1 deadline. To do this, they have to submit all of their signatures to the counties by the end of this year, so that the counties can in turn forward them to Tallahassee.
So far, organizers believe they have close to 1 million signatures. In the next 10 days, they will be making their final push.
Organizers with the grassroots group Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which is pushing the proposal, are confident that it will qualify. And when it does, the Rights Restoration Initiative could turn out to be the most important initiative in the country next November. The implications for how we define our democracy and whom we include within it are huge.
Florida is one of a handful of states, mostly in the Deep South, that make it all but impossible for felons to regain their right to vote after they complete their sentence. Currently, an individual has to petition the governor for an individual restoration of rights, and few such cases are granted. The process is designed to be as byzantine and as insurmountable as possible. In practice, for the vast majority of felons, disenfranchisement is a lifelong condition.
Florida has permanently disenfranchised felons ever since the post–Civil War state Constitution was rewritten to prevent blacks and poor people from voting. In an age of mass incarceration, this bilious law has created a silent epidemic of disenfranchisement, with more and more people having to live out their lives as voteless citizens even after they exit the criminal-justice system.
When I reported on this issue in the years after the 2000 presidential election, when the margin between Al Gore and George W. Bush was razor-thin in Florida, the ACLU, the Sentencing Project, and other groups studying the crisis estimated that there were upwards of 750,000 disenfranchised Floridians, the majority of whom had completed their sentence.
Sixteen years later, the numbers have grown. The ACLU and other groups believe that now some 1.5 million Floridians—about 10 percent of the adult citizen population—are voteless, some because they are still serving sentences, but most because of felony convictions in their past. Among African-American men in the state, the number is north of 20 percent.