Voting rights advocates and civil rights attorneys cheered the Florida Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling Thursday approving language of a proposed amendment that would restore voting rights for convicted felons, saying the decision is a major step toward erasing a lingering vestige of Jim Crow. “It’s a game changer,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who said the ruling could alter the state’s political landscape by opening elections up for hundreds of thousands of new voters. If supporters collect the needed signatures to get on the measure on the 2018 ballot, it could energize Democratic-leaning voters in a year when Florida will elect a new governor and a U.S. senator. The proposed measure still needs a total of 766,200 signatures before it can be placed on the 2018 ballot. The proposal has at leasts 71,209 so far, according to the state’s Division of Elections. Also, more than 60 percent of voters would then need to approve it in before it becomes law and voting rights would be restored. Despite those looming obstacles, the ruling was considered a major victory.
Justice Fred Lewis, who wrote the opinion, concluded the proposed ballot language was clear and unambiguous and didn’t mislead voters.
“The title and summary would reasonably lead voters to understand that the chief purpose of the amendment is to automatically restore voting rights to felony offenders, except those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, upon completion of all terms of their sentence,” Lewis wrote.
In many other states, the rights of convicted felons are automatically restored upon the completion of their sentences. In Florida, however, the system makes it extremely difficult for the state’s 1.5 million felons without voting rights — about one quarter of the nation’s total and the most in the U.S. — to regain their right to vote.