A coalition of local organizations and individuals are working to restore voting rights for felons.
In January 2011, Jhody Polk entered her fourth year of her eight-year prison sentence, and Governor Rick Scott entered his first term as Florida’s governor.
Polk expected to apply to restore her voting rights immediately after her release. Two months into his first term, Scott harshened clemency rules for all felons by imposing waiting periods to the restoration of civil rights process (RCR), adding 17 years to Polk’s plan for reintegrating back into society.
Before these new rules, a felon could apply for restoration of rights once they completed their incarceration including parole or probation. Some prisons began the process with inmates before release and the eligible—non-violent and non-sexual offenders—had their rights restored without a hearing.
Scott’s rule added 5-and 7-year RCR ineligibility periods to the tail of sentences and mandatory hearings, creating a backlog of thousands of pending cases each year.
Rights lost with a felony conviction vary by state, and so does the difficulty to restore them. The loss of voting rights is nearly ubiquitous across the country, apart from Maine and Vermont, where felons can vote from prison. Florida, however, is among the more stringent.
Along with Iowa and Kentucky, Florida is one of the three remaining states where felony convictions mean a lifetime revocation of voting rights, according to The Sentencing Project, a felony rights advocacy group. Florida also leads the US in disenfranchised voters at nearly 1.7 million people, which includes more than 21 percent of the state’s African American population.
“I don’t even have a say-so in who my local officials are,” Polk said. “My city commissioner, my sheriff, my judges and my state attorneys, those people affect me. I have no right or access to even decide who those people would be.”
Losing her right to vote was like losing her voice in the community, she said.
RCR is a multilevel process that involves years of waiting, applications, reviews and a hearing with the state clemency board, which is part of the governor’s office. The Board holds four hearing dates a year and consists of Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Adam H. Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. Only 14 percent of 2016 applicants had their rights restored.
According to reports by Florida Commission on Offender Review, the number of applicants granted restoration of civil rights dropped from 24,375 in 2009 under Crist to 473 in 2016 under Scott.
The clemency process involves a lot of paperwork and can be difficult for convicted felons, or anyone without a law degree, to navigate.
Meshon Rawls, a UF law professor, is the director of the Restoration of Civil Rights Project, which holds workshops with volunteers to assist formerly incarcerated people beginning the RCR process.
“When they come to us at that point, it’s almost like they’ve exhausted everything else to acclimate into society,” Rawls said.
To confront mass disenfranchisement, a battalion of organizations Floridians like Polk joined behind a banner, Say Yes to Second Chances (SYTSC), a statewide grassroots campaign.
“This movement and issue is so important to restoring, not just redemption, but dignity.”
Currently, the campaign is petitioning to include an amendment called the Restoration Amendment on the 2018 ballot to separate voting rights for nonviolent offenders from RCR and automatically restore the right after they complete all terms of sentencing.
To do so, they need to collect 766,200 Floridian signatures. As of Oct. 24, 257,640 of the collected signatures are verified. Petitioning continues until Dec. 1, 2017.
Local organizations like the Alachua County Labor Coalition (ACLC), the League of Women Voters, and SISTUHS Inc. are among those contributing volunteers to SYTSC to reduce the residual effects a felony conviction has on the person and community.
Part of why Polk became a social advocate was because of community support like this.
“You see people who are not directly involved, but people you would think wouldn’t even care,” Polk said. “That’s when I realized I had to start stepping up, not to just represent formerly incarcerated people, but to educate formerly incarcerated people on how this movement and issue is so important to restoring, not just redemption, but dignity.”
The University of Florida’s Chapter of SISTUHS Inc., a student organization dedicated to supporting African-American women and men, IS petitioning on campus and at community events. Some members have family directly affected by the laws said Myesha Senior, Political Action Committee Chair for the organization.
“When you take away the right to vote,” Senior said, “you take away the right to make a difference.”
Though some community members are supportive of the cause, others disagree with it.
“People have actually told me when I’m doing the petition, they’ll go, ‘You know, ignorant people shouldn’t vote anyway,’ assuming if you had a felony that you’re ignorant,” Sheila Payne, SYTSC volunteer and ACLC membership coordinator, said, “For me, it was heartbreaking.”
While petitioning, Payne and her husband Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida History professor and SYTSC volunteer, said another common misconception is that the campaign is a ploy by the Democratic Party to increase its voter base. However, no political party has backed the campaign.
“This campaign is about individualism,” Paul said. “If we can establish a system that allows people to more easily get their right to vote back—we don’t know what they’re going to do with that right, we’re not going to tell them what to do with that right—but at least they will have an opportunity they wouldn’t have had before.”
To Rawls, restoring the right to vote is about removing barriers and reducing recidivism.
“If you don’t put a barrier in someone’s way to be able to work, be in school, or provide for their family, hopefully they are less likely to find themselves in the criminal justice system,” Rawls said.
If Scott’s rules stay, Polk will have to wait until 2027 to submit her RCR application. But that’s not stopping her from using her experience to create an inclusive community.
“This is an opportunity for us to educate our community, for us to all be equal citizens and we can start to grow, start to educate, start to exercise those rights together,” Polk said. •