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Tampa lawyer mobilizes opposition to voting rights for felons

A Tampa lawyer is launching an effort to oppose a 2018 statewide ballot initiative that would restore the right to vote to more than a million convicted felons in Florida, except those convicted of murder and felony sex crimes. Attorney Richard Harrison has formed a non-profit group, Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, and created a website to reach voters.

Harrison is fighting the work of the American Civil Liberties Union and others, including the Clearwater-based group Floridians for a Fair Democracy, who are trying to change Florida's system of requiring convicted felons to wait at least five years after leaving prison before they can seek restoration of their civil rights, including the right to vote.

What concerns Harrison is the amendment's language, which he says is too broad. It would restore the voting rights of felons except those who have committed murder or sex offenses. 

"The most significant concern is the fact that it treats all felony convictions the same, other than the excluded categories," Harrison said. ""It's a one-size-fits-all approach, which we believe is not good policy."

Florida is one of three states that permanently strips the civil rights of convicted felons, even after they have completed all terms of their sentences. On their own time and at their own expense, felons must petition the governor and Cabinet to regain the right to vote, own a firearm, run for office or serve on a jury, a process that often begins decades after they leave prison and typically takes years to complete.

Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected Cabinet members meet four times a year as the Board of Executive Clemency to consider cases, but more than 20,000 people are on a waiting list. Former Gov. Charlie Crist streamlined the process after he took office in 2007 to allow many felons to regain the right to vote without formal hearings, but Scott and the current Cabinet changed the rules in 2011 to require a five-year waiting period.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Thousands wait decades to regain the right to vote

Harrison said the current system is far from perfect. But he said that people who don't like the status quo should "elect new people" to the governor's office and Cabinet. He said it's wrong to change the Constitution in a way that treats non-violent felons and many violent felons equally.

Harrison, who filed his group as a tax-exempt non-profit with the state last month, declined to say how many people support his cause. "It is more than just me, but I'm not going to discuss our membership," said Harrison, 56, a Stetson law school graduate who described himself as a conservative Republican.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Florida has more disenfranchised felons than any other state

The proposed amendment states: "Any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation. No person convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense shall be qualified to vote until restoration of civil rights."

Supporters cleared an important hurdle in April when the Florida Supreme Court approved the petition's wording. But they still must collect signatures from 766,200 registered voters in at least 14 of the state's 27 congressional districts by Feb. 1, 2018, for the amendment to reach voters on the November 2018 general election ballot.

The ACLU has committed at least $5 million to the effort, and the group already has donated $500,000, according to campaign finance reports on file with the state.

Efforts to reach petition leader Desmond Meade to comment on Harrison's efforts were unsuccessful. At a Florida Democratic Party LGBTQ conference in Tallahassee last weekend, attorney Barry Munroe gave a pep talk on the amendment and urged everyone in the room to get at least 15 voters to sign petitions. He said faith-based groups, prison ministries and voter advocacy groups are all working to change the Constitution, and that it's only a matter of time before Florida modernizes its civil rights process.

"If we don't get it this time, we'll get it next time," Munroe said, referring to the 2020 election cycle.