Altamonte Springs resident LaShanna Tyson has been invited into the White House, but she can’t help pick the person who lives there. Tyson lost her voting rights back in the late 1990s, when she was convicted as the getaway driver in a deadly convenience store holdup. It was the first crime on her record, and as she served her sentence, she dreamed about one day being reunited with her three children, going back to college and reclaiming her place in society. After 13 years behind bars, she walked out of prison, but the freedom she expected wasn’t waiting for her on the other side. As one of more than 1.6 million Floridians barred from voting because of a felony conviction, she gathered Monday in Orlando with a group of activists and community leaders pushing to overhaul laws that are among the nation’s most restrictive for ex-felons looking to re-enter the polling booth. “There was a system set up to keep me and others like me from getting jobs, from getting housing, from getting second chances, and even from being able to vote,” the 45-year-old woman said.
Tyson — whose activism on behalf of ex-offenders earned her a meeting with members of President Barack Obama’s administration — described the restrictions as “an invisible prison” around those who have already served their time.
For the past year, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has been collecting signatures supporting a state constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to felons after they’ve completed their sentences — including prison time, parole and probation. The proposal contains a carve-out for people convicted of murder or felony sex crimes, who would continue to be disqualified from voting.
The effort is about to clear a significant hurdle as it nears the 68,314 names needed to trigger a Florida Supreme Court review of the proposed ballot language, coalition president Desmond Meade said. If the court approves the wording, the group can push ahead to put the question on the 2018 ballot. Meade said they have already submitted 63,895 valid signatures to the state and are getting ready to hand in about 3,500 more.