The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

ACLU investing millions of dollars in Florida to restore ex-felons’ voting rights

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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The American Civil Liberties Union, which has stepped up its political engagement as its Trump-era membership has swelled, is getting behind a campaign to end Florida’s felon disenfranchisement law by changing the state Constitution. The decision will put substantial financial and activist resources behind an ongoing campaign to put a “Voter Restoration Amendment” on the November 2018 ballot.

“It’s going to be at least [a] $5 million commitment, maybe more,” said Faiz Shakir, the ACLU’s national political director, in an interview. “We’ll build through the end of the year, and to get the signatures we need to get on the ballot, we’re looking at a million.”

The voter restoration campaign is one of the most ambitious outgrowths of the ACLU’s “people power” project, announced four months ago with a rally in Florida. The idea of bringing new ACLU members and donors into grass-roots politics was on display that day, as local organizers walked around the college sports arena the ACLU had chosen for the launch, gathering signatures for the voter restoration effort.

Florida’s felon disenfranchisement law, which first gained national attention after the 2000 presidential election, has remained in place under a series of Republican governors and state legislatures. Florida, Kentucky and Iowa are the only states where felony convictions permanently strip the offender of voting rights pending special clemency hearings. In 2016, the nonpartisan Sentencing Project estimated that 1.68 million Florida residents had been stripped of voting rights; clemency hearings, meanwhile, had slowed to a trickle under Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).

The Voter Restoration Amendment was crafted to avoid obvious attacks. It would alter the state’s Constitution so that “any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation,” bringing Florida in line with most states; convictions for “murder or a felony sexual offense” would keep the offender in a stricter clemency process.

Changing the Constitution is long overdue, argued Shakir, not least because the felon voting provisions date to 1868 and the mass Southern introduction of “black codes” to navigate around new civil rights laws.

“The origin of this was Reconstruction-era legislators saying: Let’s put in a measure to prevent African Americans from voting,” Shakir said. “We’re coming up on 150 years later, and even after coming out of the system, former felons are deemed to be second-class citizens.”

The ACLU’s investment will pay for signature-gatherers to buttress an ongoing volunteer effort. If the ballot initiative meets the signature requirement, it will need support from 60 percent of midterm voters to change the Constitution — a change that would go into effect before the next presidential election.