Leroy Jones, who was formerly incarcerated, joins other demonstrators, Wednesday, April 9, 2003, where the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments on vote restoration for people with prior felony convictions. 15 years later, if Amendment 4 passes, it would restore the right to vote to 1.4 million Floridians.  

© 2003 J. Pat Carter/AP Photo

(Miami, Florida) – Florida should make history by voting “Yes” on Florida’s Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to people with prior felony convictions who have served their time, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Voting bans have no place in a democracy. Depriving someone of the right to vote should not be part of criminal punishment,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “If someone has served their time, they deserve a voice and a vote in this country.”

Austin-Hillery will be in Miami speaking at a non-partisan community conversation to raise awareness of Amendment 4 taking place on August 27th at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. The event is open to the public and features a discussion moderated by David Lawrence Jr., former publisher of the Miami Herald and current chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida, with Austin-Hillery and Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Executive Director Desmond Meade, who will discuss the human rights impact and national significance of restoring voting rights. The event is co-presented by Human Rights Watch and the Green Family Foundation.

“The issue is about fairness, justice, and simply what is decent and wise in our state and country. We ought to talk about all this, and then do something about this – and that is voting ourselves,” David Lawrence Jr., former publisher for the Miami Herald said.

Currently 1.4 million Floridians are permanently excluded from the right to vote. If Amendment 4 passes, it would restore the right to vote to people with prior felony convictions who have fully completed their sentences, re-enfranchising the largest number of Americans since the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Amendment 4 specifically excludes people who have committed murder or a felony sexual offense.

Advocates in favor of Amendment 4 argue that restoring the right to vote gives a second chance to people who have already paid their debt to society, giving them the opportunity to be full members of their communities and engage meaningfully in the democratic process.

“There is no greater indicator of citizenship than having the ability to vote, and nothing speaks more to the founding of our country than second chances,” said Desmond Meade, who leads statewide efforts to restore the civil rights of returning citizens like himself. “That’s why this grassroots movement has strong support across the board. When a debt is paid, it is paid.”

The impact of felony disenfranchisement laws was exacerbated during the 20th century’s mass incarceration phenomenon as more people were convicted of felonies, more people were sent to prison, and prison sentences have grown longer and increasingly disproportionate. For example, people in Florida can now lose their voting rights for one single drug conviction. In a 2016 investigative report released by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, the groups found that every 25 seconds in the United States someone is arrested for the simple act of possessing drugs for their personal use. That is 1.25 million arrests per year. Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime, including violent crimes. As the report reveals, those impacted are disproportionately from communities of color and the poor.

Human Rights Watch’s work to overturn voting bans started 20 years ago, with the report “Losing the Vote.” Over the past two decades, there have been successes in the fight to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, including Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s 2016 decision to overturn a similar lifetime voting ban in that state. Florida is one of three states that still maintain lifetime voting bans, along with Kentucky and Iowa.