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Felons' rights initiative gets ACLU boost

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A proposed amendment to automatically restore the voting rights of non-violent felons is getting a shot in the arm, as the American Civil Liberties Union is investing $5 million to help the struggling amendment gain enough signatures.

Organizers have until February to have more than 766,000 signatures verified to make the November ballot. The one time non-paid petition gatherers were successful was 1976. Then Gov. Ruben Askew used the power of his office to make it happen.

The Florida Supreme Court of Florida has already approved the felons rights amendment for the 2018 ballot. It now must gather more than 700,000 signatures to get there.

The day the court heard arguments, organizer Desmond Meade  was proud that all of the more than 68,000 signed petitions had been gathered by volunteers.

“To actually collect enough signatures to get us here, I don’t think it’s ever been done before in the history of Florida,” Meade said.

Since the March hearing, the petition count has decreased. The official count now shows only 6,000 valid signatures. But the ACLU plans to help change that by putting $5 million behind the effort.

“Well look, this is something that has existed in the Florida Constitution since after the Civil War," ACLU representative Baylor Johnson said. "It was part of efforts to restrict the vote during a very dark period, frankly, in this state’s history.”

Currently, the governor and Cabinet personally review only about 400 rights restoration requests a year.

Attorney Reggie Garcia specializes in parole and clemency cases.

“Most of my clients call for a very specific reason: So they can get a state or Federal license," Garcia said.

There has only been one time in the nearly 50 years that petitions have been part of the Constitution that paid petition gatherers were not used and the amendment was successful.

Now organizers will have the muscle and at least $5 million from the ACLU to try and change what has made Florida one of the most difficult states for rights restoration.