Hundreds of thousands of Florida ex-felons who have completed their sentences still can’t vote, a prohibition that is hindering their re-entry into society, a group of voting rights advocates said Tuesday as they urged Congress to step in. Changes made last year in Florida have stopped restoration efforts for ex-felons who have served their prison sentences or completed probation, a shift in policy that came four years after former Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet voted to join most other states and automatically restore the rights of felons who had paid their debt to society. Hampered in efforts to change state law, Mark Schlakman, a Democratic candidate for Congress and Walter McNeil, former Department of Corrections secretary, on Tuesday urged Florida’s congressional delegation to push for federal law changes to require automatic restoration of civil rights for federal elections. The practical result, said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, would be that state election officials would follow suit because a dual registration system for state and federal elections would not work.
Last year, state lawmakers approved a measure that allows ex-felons to get vocational licenses and government work permits, even as they have to wait for other rights and privileges, such as voting. The bill, SB 146, was pushed by members of both parties, including Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Schlakman said a similar bipartisan effort should be mounted on the voting rights issue. He pointed to the Democracy Restoration Act, a federal, Democrat-backed initiative, as a template for how restoration could work.