After Wednesday night’s federal appeals court ruling blocking a federal judge’s order that Florida revamp its process for restoring voting rights to ex-felons, civil rights leaders took to the streets of Tallahassee Thursday with their sights now set on November 6 and Amendment 4.
Hundreds of people marched to the state Capitol for a rally in support of the citizens’ initiative. If passed by 60 percent of the voters in November the amendment would automatically restore voting rights to felons once they have completed their sentences.
Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at Thursday’s rally. He says Florida was a focus of the civil rights efforts led by Martin Luther King, Jr., more than 60 years ago. He promised those in the crowd that Florida will be the focus of the civil rights movement again in 2018 as the result of the felon voting rights issue.
“Just like we’ve always had to come to Florida to fight for civil rights and human rights,” Sharpton said. “Fifty-years after his death, Florida will become ground zero for us to turn around this affront to voting rights for ex-felons. We’re going to turn on the light in the Sunshine State and we’re going to take the shackle off of ex-felons.”
Amendment 4 would do away with the current system that critics say disenfranchises ex-felons from their right to vote. There are an estimated 1.5 million former prisoners who would have their voting rights restored if Amendment 4 is passed.
“On November 6 we need to show up to pass Amendment 4 and make sure we automatically restore rights to that class of former felons who are only seeking the dignity around the right to vote, only seeking the dignity around the right to be made whole,” said Tallahassee mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.
Tawanna Franklin was one of the speakers at the rally. She’s a third-year law student at Florida State University.
“Never in my lifetime did I ever imagine that I would have to fight for the right to vote,” Franklin said. “My parents and grandparents fought for the same rights so long ago.”
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled earlier this year the current system of restoring voting rights to ex-felons is unconstitutional and “fatally flawed.” He said the system was arbitrary, with every case that goes before the governor and Cabinet, sitting as the state clemency board, needing the the approval of the governor. A former inmate must wait a minimum of five years after they’re released before they can apply to have their rights restored. The wait for restoration of rights can take several more years.
Walker ordered the state to have a new process in place by today, April 26. But, Wednesday evening the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Walker’s ruling until the state’s appeal could be heard, meaning the current system remains in effect.
Rev. Sharpton says the debate over Amendment 4 and the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons could have repercussions on the political races on the November ballot, as well as the 2020 election.
“This amendment, it will drive turnout,” Sharpton said. “And the more the amendment is given focus, it will alter the political landscape in Florida, which also alters the national landscape … By (the appeals court) ruling on the eve of this rally, it gave us the impetus to really build a movement.”