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With voting rights on ballot, advocates shelve similar proposal

Now that a citizens’ initiative to restore voting rights to felons is on Florida’s ballot, two members of the Constitution Revision Commission say they’ll drop a similar proposal to avoid confusing voters.

“We don’t need two proposals on the ballot,” said former Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, a CRC member.

As a freshman House member two decades ago, Smith tried to get the Legislature to pay attention to the issue of giving a second chance to felons who had served their time. But it never got a hearing. Now voters will decide the question, Smith said, just as voters in recent years took control of medical marijuana and land and water protection when the Legislature wouldn’t.

Smith and former Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, a CRC member, stood with more than a dozen supporters of Amendment 4. The voting rights amendment will automatically restore the right to vote to felons who complete all terms of their sentences, with the exception of murderers and felony sex offenders.

“Second chances. That’s what this amendment is about,” Joyner said at a news conference at the Capitol Friday, as she quoted from an op-ed she wrote for the Tampa Tribune back in 2011. Read that column here.

Joyner and Smith, both Democrats, blamed Republican Gov. Rick Scott for erecting new barriers to felons that have made Florida home to more than 1.5 disenfranchised voters, far more than any other state. Felons must wait at least five years after completing their sentences before they can apply for restoration of rights, a process that takes many years.

Both ex-lawmakers say the upcoming political campaign to pass Amendment 4 will focus on Scott, who’s plotting a possible race for the U.S. Senate next fall.

“Governor Scott has sat like a king giving a thumbs up and a thumbs down, dealing with people’s lives,” Smith said, citing the governor’s role as chairman of the Board of Clemency that meets four times a year to decide whether to restore a felon’s civil rights. “His record will be one of the things that’s going to be used to show why we need this.”

On Tuesday, the day the state confirmed Amendment 4 will be on the ballot, Scott’s office released this statement: “This is a decision for each voter to decide on. The governor has been clear that the most important thing to him is that felons can show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities.”