For hundreds of thousands of Floridians with felony convictions, a proposal on the November ballot to automatically restore their voting rights is a cause to rally behind—a beacon of hope. I wrote an in-depth report on this proposal for TPM’s voting rights series last week.
For a much smaller population, Amendment 4 represents a slap in the face. Sunshine State residents with murder or sex offenses on their records are explicitly excluded in the ballot measure’s language.
This is a “divide and conquer tactic,” according to Paul Wright, head of the Human Rights Defense Center, a non-profit organization that advocates for rights for former felons.
Wright, who lives in Lake Worth, is one of those who will be left out if Amendment 4 passes. In 1987, Wright was convicted of murder for fatally shooting a drug dealer in a botched robbery in Washington state. He became a forceful advocate for prison reform while incarcerated, publishing stories in the outlet he founded, Prison Legal News, that have exposed major corporations’ use of prison labor and price gouging in the prison phone industry.
Speaking in a quiet, measured voice, Wright told TPM in a phone interview that the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and ACLU’s decision to bar certain categories of felons from the amendment was a matter of “political opportunism.”
“They told me when they did focus groups that the groups said it wouldn’t pass unless it excluded murderers and sex offenders,” Wright said.
Painful as it is for those excluded, it’s hard to argue with that logic in a purple, crime-obsessed state like Florida.
In a statement to TPM, FRRC executive director Desmond Meade said the amendment “was produced through years of conversations with the people of Florida, and Floridians from all walks of life and all backgrounds have consistently shown super majority support for restoring the eligibility to vote for people with past felony convictions who have completed all portions of their sentence, with the exception of those convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses.”
A number of surveys conducted this year show Amendment 4 polling well over the 60 percent required to pass, and a number of Democratic politicians are enthusiastically campaigning on their support for the issue.
That scenario would be hard to imagine if child molesters were among those who would get their rights back.
Indeed, Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has highlighted the most serious categories of crimes in defending the clemency system he instituted. Scott’s policy requires former felons to complete all court-mandated aspects of their sentencing and then wait five years — seven in the case of those with murder or sex offense records — to apply for the opportunity to get their rights restored.
A Scott spokeswoman pointed to their concerns about the rehabilitation of those who have committed “murder, violence against children and domestic violence” when TPM asked about the fairness of restoring rights on a case-by-case basis.
Tampa attorney Richard Harrison, who has led the small opposition campaign to Amendment 4, is also concerned that the measure treats all felony charges the same. In Harrison’s view, those who committed violent crimes or repeat offenses should face a harder time getting their rights back.
But Wright argues that “isolating and singling people out based on offenses” is ultimately a damaging tactic for those who want to see fairer treatment of former felons. Realistically, no separate ballot measure will be pushed in the foreseeable future that applies only to those with murder or sex crime convictions, meaning that if Amendment 4 passes, those Floridians may never get their voting rights back.
Wright is concerned that the November results could further stigmatize some of the most politically vulnerable members of the state’s population.
“It’s a whole ends and means thing,” he said. “If 70 or 80,000 people need to be sacrificed, then so what? As long as its not me, my family or my social group that’s being affected, it’s really easy to make these decisions about other people. And they have.”