Floridians to decide debate over felon voting rights

Keith Ivey has an image in his mind he can’t let go of.

It’s just a piece of paper that most people tuck into their wallets and forget.

But for the 46-year-old Ivey, the voter registration card he received nearly three decades ago --- but never used --- represents both hope and despair.

Ivey is one of more than 1.4 million Floridians who lost the right to vote after being convicted of felonies. And he’s one of those whose voting privilege would automatically be restored under Amendment 4, a constitutional proposal on the November ballot that’s got backers as disparate as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Koch brothers.

Ivey’s now a successful businessman. He and his father operate a used-car dealership in Jacksonville.

But, for Ivey and hundreds of thousands of others, the excitement and nonstop attention surrounding the 2018 elections punctuate their inability to participate in one of the most basic components of a democracy: casting a ballot.

“It’s very painful. It’s a huge void. It’s being voiceless. There are community leaders that you want to support or want to not support. You can’t have that voice,” Ivey told The News Service of Florida in a recent telephone conversation from Washington, D.C., where he was vacationing with his wife.

Amendment 4, heavily bankrolled by the ACLU, would automatically restore the right to vote for people who were convicted of felonies and who have completed their sentences, paid restitution and fulfilled parole or probation requirements. Murderers and sex offenders would be excluded.

Backers of the amendment estimate that about 1.4 million Floridians would have their voting rights restored, if the required 60 percent of voters approve the proposal.

The November vote on Amendment 4 comes as Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet fight a federal judge’s ruling that said the state’s current rights-restoration system is unconstitutional.

After taking office in 2011, Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi played key roles in changing the process to effectively make it harder for felons to get their rights restored.

Under the changes, felons must wait five or seven years before applying to have their rights restored. After applications are filed, the process can take years to complete.

The number of applications for restoration has dramatically dropped under Scott and the all-Republican Cabinet, which acts as the state’s Board of Executive Clemency.

Since the changes went into effect, Scott --- whose support is required for any type of clemency to be granted --- and the board have restored the rights of 3,005 of the more than 30,000 convicted felons who’ve applied, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. As of Oct. 1, there was a backlog of 10,275 pending applications, according to the commission.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker this year sided with Fair Elections Legal Network and the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in a lawsuit filed against the state on behalf of nine felons, who alleged that the state’s vote-restoration process is discriminatory.

Walker ordered the state to revamp the system, but, in a victory for Scott and the Cabinet, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April blocked the federal judge’s order from going into effect. The appeals court hasn’t issued a final ruling in the case.

With voters already receiving mail-in ballots, organized opposition to Amendment 4 has not emerged.

But critics of the measure --- including Scott and former Congressman Ron DeSantis, who’s in a heated contest with Democrat Andrew Gillum to replace the governor --- maintain that the proposal treats convicted felons too leniently.

“The governor believes that in order for felons to have their rights restored, they have to demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime, show a willingness to request to have their rights restored and show restitution to the victims of their crime,” Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Scott’s U.S. Senate campaign, said in an email.

DeSantis “believes in second chances,” but with a caveat, according to campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson.

“He is in favor of giving offenders an opportunity to earn their rights back; however, he believes that automatic restoration is inappropriate as recidivism is still very high. Prior offenders must show their commitment to be a law-abiding member of their community after serving their sentence before they have those rights restored,” Lawson told The News Service of Florida.

But Amendment 4 has drawn national support, with Florida one of a handful of states that have laws on the books critics say are remnants of post-Civil War Jim Crow policies designed to keep blacks from casting ballots.

Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s has placed the Florida initiative among its top-tier 2018 election issues. The left-leaning dessert company will give away free ice cream at early voting sites throughout the state in advance of the Nov. 6 election, according to the Second Chances Campaign, an organization behind the amendment.

R&B musician John Legend recently headlined an event in Orlando to rally support for the amendment. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes recently visited the state to call attention to the proposal. And HBO host John Oliver last month made an appeal to Florida voters during a “Last Week Tonight” segment devoted to the amendment.

The amendment also has a plethora of lesser-known advocates in Florida, including Purple Heart recipient Alan Rhyelle. The Vietnam vet, who was shot through the chest in 1967 and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, turned to marijuana as an alternative to highly addictive and toxic medications prescribed to treat his pain and anxiety.

After his daughter, Peaches, suffered traumatic injuries in a car accident a decade ago, Rhyelle began growing pot to provide what he considered a better alternative to the multiple prescription pain medications doctors had ordered for his bedridden daughter.

But shortly before drying cannabis was ready for Peaches’ consumption, his daughter died.

When the paramedics arrived at his house to take his daughter to the medical examiner’s office, they smelled marijuana and alerted the sheriff’s office, Rhyelle said in a recent interview.

As a result, he lost his right to vote.

“I love my country. I’ll stand up and I’ll fight if anybody was to invade our shores,” Rhyelle, a Sarasota County resident,l said.

Rhyelle, 72, said he hasn’t applied to have his rights restored because of the backlog ahead of him, but he’s signed on to promote Amendment 4 with the hope of assisting others.

“I thought, well, hey, even if I can’t get it, it will help them, and I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I’ve done something to help somebody,” he said.

Forgiveness is another theme that resonates for backers of Amendment 4.

Karen Leicht, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and served more than two years in federal prison, said a “debt, when it is paid, is paid.”

“Why can’t the state of Florida forgive us? When you have paid, and your family has paid dearly, shouldn’t you be allowed to vote?” Leicht told the News Service.

Ivey, meanwhile, is haunted by the image of that critical piece of paper, which he never put to use.

“I see my voter’s registration card in my mind, over and over again,” he said. “And now that it’s so close, I really want this.”


Information provided by The News Service of Florida.