There has been a lot of talk about Florida’s voter restoration amendment, which would restore voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions. As a 25-plus-year conservative who would be impacted by this amendment, I am excited about the prospect of its passage.
As those who live in Florida know, thousands of people have worked for years to put this on the ballot through a grassroots, citizen-led initiative. Amendment 4, as it is known, would restore eligibility to vote for those with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence, including restitution, parole or probation. It would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
Amendment 4 would help people like Alan Rhyelle, a veteran and purple-heart recipient, who lost his ability to vote because of a marijuana conviction years ago. Allen remains ineligible to vote, and is one of the thousands of Florida veterans who are unable to be full citizens in their own communities because of our state’s felon disenfranchisement policies.
Seventy-five percent of the people convicted of felonies in Florida are not sentenced to prison, yet they are stripped of their ability to vote for the rest of their life. Florida remains one of only four states that imposes such a lifetime ban on voting for people with past felony convictions.
The simple fact is that our system is broken. Because our system is broken, everyday Floridians from all walks of life spent years collecting over a million petitions to get Amendment 4 on the ballot. From Pensacola to Key West, in churches and coffee shops all across the state, citizens took matters into their own hands and did what their elected officials would not do — take real steps toward fixing our broken system.
States like Texas, Georgia and others have debated and recently made changes similar to those that are included in Amendment 4. As a result, I could move to Texas, Georgia or any of 44 other states and be able to vote.
Those states made changes because 150-year-old felon disenfranchisement policies contradict our shared values. All across the country, states have changed their felon disenfranchisement policies by rallying behind the basic premise that when a debt is paid, it is paid. People from all walks of life recognize and appreciate the power of forgiveness, redemption and restoration. Likewise, the empirical data on this issue shows that increased civic participation contributes to safer communities and a more robust economy.
At the heart of this movement is a belief that once a person has completed their full sentence — as determined by a judge — their eligibility to vote should not be left up to the arbitrary whims of politicians and election cycles. Allowing citizens to earn back their eligibility to vote gives them a deeper stake in their community. As studies by Florida’s Office of Offender Review demonstrate, they subsequently become less likely to re-offend. Passage of Amendment 4 will make communities safer, and it will also allow us to reduce spending on the criminal justice system. This is a win-win for Florida taxpayers and for all those who believe in the power of redemption.
The bottom line is that if we want people returning to society to become productive, law-abiding citizens, we need to treat them like full-fledged citizens. That means allowing the nearly 1.4 million people in Florida who have served their time and paid their debts, and who are currently excluded from voting, the ability to earn back their vote. Our society will be safer and our system more just, and it will provide a real second chance for returning citizens.
Neil Volz is the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.