New legislation could allow former felons to vote in federal elections

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Hundreds of thousands of Floridians who have served time in prison are unable to vote because of what some are calling the most restrictive rights restoration policy in the nation. But multiple efforts are underway to change the system.

The restoration of civil rights includes the right to vote, serve on a jury, or hold public office. It does not included the right to own a firearm. Legislation pending in Congress could require the state to allow former felons to vote in federal elections.

About 50 black-shirted protesters showed up at the quarterly Clemency Board meeting, angry over what some call the most restrictive clemency system in the nation.

Over the course of four years, those getting their rights back has fallen from 30,000 to under 1,000 last year.

Applicants must wait at least five years before even applying. And a single speeding ticket can disqualify someone.

Lashanna Tyson said after a decade of clean living she is still being hampered by not having her right to vote.

"Even though I'm out here, I still feel incarcerated," Tyson said. "I still feel incarcerated, and that's a hurtful feeling."

Now, a coalition known as Floridians for a Fair Democracy is circulating petitions for a 2016 ballot initiative. It would automatically restore voting rights upon the completion of a sentence. Civil Rights lawyer Mark Schlakman has been advising the group.

"This is about re-entering society after the sentence is complete and regaining the responsibilities of citizenship," said Schlakman, who is also with the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

On average, one in three people released by the Department of Corrections end up committing a new crime. But when civil rights are restored, the number drops to one in nine. The recidivism figure comes from the Clemency Board's own investigative arm. The study has done nothing to sway policymakers from their tough stance.