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Group sends reminder: 1.5 million are disenfranchised from voting in Florida

Greg JamesMonday was the last day to register to vote in Florida for the Aug. 30 primary, but for an estimated 1.5 million Florida citizens who are barred from voting because they served time in jail, it was also a day to send a message.

"Register, new voters, because your voice matters,'' said Gregory James, pastor of the Life Church International Center in Tallahassee. "There are 1.5 million still without a voice."

James was sentenced to life plus 40 years in federal prison in 1994, on a charge of conspiracy to sell drugs. He was a first-time offender on a non-violent charge and he served 14 years before he was released in 2008.

Now, as pastor and host of a weekly radio show, he preaches about the value of voting but he can't vote.

"There are members of my ministry who believe in me, who follow my instructions, whose lives have been changed and here it is I'm subject to restrictions on where I can live, checking a box, getting back in college -- there are so many things that hinders a process,'' he said.

James is part of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group that is behind a statewide petition drive to put a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot to restore voting rights. They held press conferences in Tampa, Orlando, West Palm Beach and Tallahassee Monday to promote the petition drive.

The group says it is just 1,000 signatures short of the 68,314 signature threshold needed to triggering a review by the Florida Supreme Court, the first step in getting the measure on the ballot.

The proposal would automatically restore the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, unless the governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis. 

Photo: Rev. Greg James, on his right is Rev. Ivey Guyton, both former felons who support automatic restoration of civil rights.

Three months into office in 2011,  Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater unanimously reversed a policy adopted during the Charlie Crist administration that automatically restored the civil rights of former felons convicted of non-violent crimes.

They replaced the automatic restoration with a cumbersome new rule that requires anyone convicted of a felony to wait five-years before being eligible to have his or her rights restored, a process that could take another two years or more.

Individuals who are convicted, or who have previously been convicted felonies such as murder, assault, child abuse, drug trafficking, arson, must wait seven years before petitioning the governor and Cabinet to determine whether or not they will have their voting rights restored.

During Scott's first five years in office, the Cabinet, which serves as the state's Clemency Board, restored rights to just over 2000 former felons. That compares to the previous four years when 155,315 former felons had their rights restored.

The average time it takes for a former felon to get his right to vote back now is about 10 years, discouraging many from ever applying. According to the Florida Commission on Offender Review, the number of individuals applying for the restoration of civil rights has plummeted -- from 13,323 in 2011, Scott's first year in office, to 2,347 last year.

"I've been pastoring for over 18 years. I've been married for over 25 years,'' said Ivey Guyton, pastor at Freedom Center in Tallahassee. He was locked up for less than a year on felony charges 30 years ago.

"I know what it means to be back in society but not yet back in society,'' he said Monday.

Guyton was among the more than 155,000 ex-felons whose rights were restored during Crist's tenure, when the Clemency Board policy allowed people who had served their non-violent felony conviction to have their rights automatically restored.

"I have a successful church here in Tallahassee,'' Guyton said. "I am able to things I wouldn't be able to do if I hadn't had my rights restored. I am a product of 'if you give people their rights back, if you restore voting rights, hey, they will stay out of trouble.' So look at me. I'm doing fine. I'm doing well."