Tampa lawyer forms group to oppose restoring felons' voting rights

The ex-cons say they've served their time, but a lawyer says the plan to restore voting rights goes too far.

TAMPA, Fla.  -- If convicted felons do their time, should they be able to vote once released from prison?

Supporters of that idea, who’ve been pushing a petition in Florida to restore felons' voting rights, say yes. But now, a longtime Tampa lawyer has started a group aimed at defeating that proposal.

At the center of the debate, you find people like Floyd Nelson, a convicted felon living in Tampa who says he did his time and now wants oe of his most precious rights back. The right to vote. 

“Sure is. It's my God-given right as being a citizen of the country. Since I was born and raised in the United States, why not?” said Nelson.

Florida is one of just three states along with Iowa and Virginia where felons and ex-felons permanently lose their right to vote, even after they've done their time.

Only after a five-year waiting period can they even apply for an exemption.  

“I've been trying to get mine for years, and I have yet to get it yet,” said Nelson.

A recent petition drive aims to gather nearly 800,000 signatures by Feb. 1 to put an amendment on the November 2018 ballot. It would reinstate voting rights for felons who've done their time - unless they were convicted of murder or felony sex crimes. 

“We want people to be rehabilitated. We don't want them to go back to jail. What does a person feel when they are done with their jail time, and they get out, and they cannot vote?” said state Rep. Sean Shaw (D) Tampa.

“There may well be room for improvement, but this is not an improvement,” said Tampa attorney Richard Harrison. Harrison, who opposes the idea, just formed a non-profit group called Floridians for Sensible Voting Rights Policy. 

Their website contends the wording of the amendment is dangerously broad. 

“Somebody who writes a check for $5,000. That's a felony under Florida law. And then let's compare that to an armed robber who shoots a convenience store clerk in the course of a robbery. I don't think any reasonable person would think those are the same,” said Harrison, “But under the (amendment) they're treated exactly the same.”

Harrison agrees some felons deserve a second chance at voting but says Florida already has a way to apply for that - a process critics say often takes too much time and too much money for people like Floyd Nelson.   

Both sides admit there's a political component to this. It's widely believed that a majority of former felons would register as Democrats.

And with nearly 2 million of them living in Florida, even a small percentage could be enough to sway an election.

Opponents say they’re also concerned that giving felons the right to vote could open the door to reinstating other rights, including running for public office and carrying a firearm.

For Nelson, it’s not that complicated.

“I did my crime, and I did the time and all, yes. I've paid for it, and I'm done,” said Nelson, “And I just want to be part of society again. Who don't?”

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