The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida is asking veterans of the U.S. military who have lost the ability to vote due to Florida’s lifetime voting ban on people with past felony convictions to contact us. The ACLU of Florida will protect individuals’ anonymity, but wants to hear their stories.
The VeteransVote project is part of a broader campaign aimed at amending the Florida Constitution so that Floridians who have completed their prison sentence and probation automatically regain their right to vote. The change would not cover persons guilty of murder or sexual crimes. The ACLU and other organizations forming Floridians for a Fair Democracy are currently conducting petition campaign to put the proposed Constitutional change on the November 2018 ballot. A total of 766,200 valid petitions are needed by December 31.
Each year, some 60,000 people in Florida either finish their prison sentence or complete their probation period. In recent years, at least 6 percent of those people were military veterans –about 3500 per year. In the past, the percentage of veterans in Florida prisons was even higher – 8 percent in 2007; 11 percent in 1997. Many of those released from prison and probation have never been able to have their voting rights restored—including people who fought for their country.
The great majority of states restore voting rights to people who finish prison and probation. Florida is one of only three states that makes all persons convicted of felonies petition state officials –who are partisan politicians -- to have their voting rights restored. The provision in the Florida Constitution establishing that procedure dates to 1868 and was designed to keep freed black slaves from voting. Today, about 30 percent of those affected are black, while the majority are white or Hispanic
Today in Florida, former inmates must wait between five and seven years after completing their sentences to even apply for restoration of their voting rights, depending on the crime. After they apply, they are placed on a waiting list to have their cases reviewed by the Florida Board of Executive Clemency –made up of the governor and three Cabinet members. It often takes years for cases to be heard and that wait has increased dramatically under Governor Rick Scott. In the four years Charlie Crist served as Florida governor, 2007-2011, some 155,000 persons regained their right to vote. But in almost seven years under Governor Scott, 2011 to the present, only 2807 people have their rights restored— out of what is now 1.6 million disenfranchised Floridians, including veterans.
“Many veterans who have served our nation honorably, but later made mistakes in their lives, are now banned from participating in our democracy,” stated Colonel Mike Pheneger, U.S. Army retired. Pheneger, a combat veteran, is a board member of the Florida ACLU and former president of that board. “All people deserve the opportunity to redeem themselves. Politicians should not be blocking former inmates who have paid their debt to society from reintegrating into society. Politicians should not be telling veterans they can’t vote.”
Kicking off the story-gathering project, the ACLU of Florida is releasing a video featuring former Army Private Clarence Office Jr., 60, of Miami. who served in the military for three years, was discharged honorably, but later fell into problems with drugs. He was arrested numerous times for possession and sale of small amounts of narcotics –no violent crime -- served time in prison, but has been crime-free for ten years. He now works with the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs and counsels other veterans who have encountered problems with the criminal justice system. But he still can’t vote.
“We who are veterans did what was expected of us to defend the country,” Office said. “Some of us had problems when we came back, but if we served our time we should be allowed to vote. In fact, all people who finished their time should be allowed to vote. I hope the 800,000 who are needed will sign the petition.”
The ACLU of Florida is encouraging veterans impacted by Florida’s voting ban to contact us by calling 786-363-2727 or by visiting: www.aclufl.org/veteransvote
The video profile of Clarence Office Jr. is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXnnBbRZd-c&feature=youtu.be
A copy of the petition is available for Florida voters to download, print, and sign, here: https://www.floridiansforafairdemocracy.com/sign-the-petition