Amendment 4’s passage would restore voting rights for some Florida felons

By Colleen Jones

Yolanda Hughes doesn’t hide the fact that she made some bad decisions when she was younger.

“I had a three-page rap sheet by the time I was 26,” said Hughes, now 40, married and the mother of six.

Now holding down a full-time job and working toward paying a mortgage on her St. Augustine home, Hughes’ days of incarceration are far behind her.

But until she regained the right to vote, Hughes says she felt like the blemish that was on her record didn’t reflect her changed life.

Currently, Florida residents with prior felony convictions are permanently disqualified to cast ballots at the polls.

Under a law that dates back to the Reconstruction era, Florida bars felons from voting without going through an application process and clemency hearing decided upon by a panel. That panel is overseen by the governor and since Gov. Rick Scott has led the state, the percentage of former convicts having their rights restored — after a minimum five-year waiting period — has not moved beyond the single digits.

Amendment 4, otherwise known as the Voting Restoration Amendment, is one of a dozen propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot. If passed, the amendment would automatically return the right to vote to all felons after they complete their sentences, with the exception of murders or serious sexual offenders.

Nearly 1.4 million people in Florida — about one in 10 — are excluded from voting because of past convictions. The measure disproportionately affects the black population, with about one in four voters disenfranchised. They also cannot practice law, run for office or serve on a jury. Florida is one of just three states in the nation with such rigid restrictions.

To be approved, the proposition needs 60 percent of the vote.

A matter of human rights

St. Augustine resident Paul Maass became involved with the campaign for the passage of Amendment 4 when he learned how many Floridians were disenfranchised by their criminal records.

“If we want to have a true democracy, then we have to give everyone the right to vote,” said Maass.

Civic responsibility is something Hughes doesn’t take lightly. After regaining her rights, the first vote that Hughes could legally cast was for former President Barack Obama in the 2008 election.

“The small things matter, but something we can take for granted, just like a piece of white paper with black ink on it,” said Hughes. “But we can make a difference, even locally.”

To Maass, it’s also a human rights issue.

“When they don’t feel like they’re a second-class citizen, they’re going to make strides to better themselves, and that makes communities safer,” he said.

According to a study by the Florida Commission on Offender Review, ex-felons given the right to vote were two-thirds less likely to re-offend.

Xavier Thomas has been on the straight and narrow for more than 20 years after being released from prison. He’s gotten married and had children, opened his own business and been a taxpayer.

But until recently, he couldn’t vote.

The process was daunting, and something Thomas said he couldn’t have navigated without the help of Gary Farris, a local advocate for felon voter rights.

“You have to jump through so many hoops and if you don’t have someone fighting for you, you’re lost,” said Thomas, who lives in Jacksonville.

Farris was able to track down Thomas’ records in Georgia, where he was convicted, and file for their restoration.

“It felt good after 20-something years,” Thomas. “The way I see it, you’ve served your time and to take away someone’s rights — their voice being heard — it’s just not fair.”

This article provided by NewsEdge.