Amendment 4 on Nov. ballot
HAINES CITY – According to U.S. Rep. Darren Soto (D-Winter Haven), Thursday marked the first time a U.S. Senator ever made a public appearance in Haines City. It was a short visit. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is running against Gov. Rick Scott this November, was thirty minutes late to an hour-long town hall about something else on the ballot in November, an amendment to the Florida Constitution that would automatically restore voting rights of felons (other than murderers and some sexual offenders) who had completed sentencing.
All of the speakers at the town hall event had to cut it off early because they were borrowing space at
city hall, where a city commission meeting was scheduled to start two hours after the town hall was scheduled to start. The entire event lasted just over an hour.
Along with Sen. Nelson, Rep. Soto invited Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-Louisiana), Haines City NAACP President Cynthia Downing and David Ayala of Latino Justice to host the town hall. Representatives Soto and Richmond spent 30 minutes in support of automatically restoring voting rights for felons upon completing sentencing. Downing and Ayala both made two-minute opening statements and then people in attendance were invited to ask questions.
The first two public questions were off topic and then Sen. Nelson arrived and made an opening statement. A member of the public asked a third off topic question and it was not until 47 minutes into the event that lasted an hour and 15 minutes that somebody in the audience spoke about restoring voting rights.
On behalf of her son Michael Brooks, Winter Haven resident Johnnie Thomas spoke about how the current law has affected her family. Thomas said her son was arrested on felony driving offenses and spent 30 days in the county jail in his 20s. She said her son, who could not attend the event because he was working, applied to have his rights restored several times. He is 46 now and still does not have the right to vote, she said.
“People do not understand the impact of this,”Thomas said. “My son made a stupid mistake and he is still paying for that mistake.”
Florida is one of four states that do not automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed sentencing. The law has been on the books here in various forms since 1838, Soto said. Sen. Nelson said 1.7M Floridians are felons who had voting rights taken away who have had to fight for years to get their rights restored. The current law was written in 1968, around the same time that multiple federal civil rights cases were being enacted in Congress or upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ayala, an event host who sat between Soto and Nelson, said it’s been 11 years since he completed his sentencing and that he still does not have his voting rights restored. He said his wife ran for office recently and that he could not vote for her. A member of the audience said he was convicted of killing somebody while driving drunk years ago and that he did not get a response to his first application to have his voting rights restored. He applied again and is now “on the list” but is still waiting to get an answer. The man asked the legislators why they were in favor of allowing non-citizens from filling out U.S. Census forms and then took a few minutes speaking negatively about Hillary Clinton. By the time he asked whether they were in favor of helping him get his gun rights back, he got no answer from the hosts. Other questions included inquiries about hurricane recovery, same day voting, prison reform such as early release for good behavior and immigration.
Amendments to the Florida Constitution can be placed on the ballot in a number of ways to include a citizens’ initiative process that requires a few hundred thousand voter signatures. Right now there are around 25 of them but only five have made the ballot in November so far. The Voting Restoration Amendment was the fourth amendment to make the ballot.
Around 770k signatures were required to make the ballot and more than 842k Floridians signed the petition to make the ballot. Just under 30k Polk County residents signed to have the petition put to a vote.
Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-Louisiana) said Florida is one of four states that do not automatically restore voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentencing.
Winter Haven resident Johnnie Thomas spoke about how her son got convicted of driving offenses decades ago and still has not had his voting rights restored.