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Alan Grayson proposes legislation that would restore voting rights to ex-felons

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Noting how Florida leads the nation in barring ex-felons from regaining their right to vote, Orlando area Congressman and Democratic Senate candidate Alan Grayson announced legislation on Thursday that would reinstate voting rights to those Americans who have been shut out of the political process.

“We lead the nation in voter disenfranchisement,” Grayson said in a conference call with reporters, referring to the fact that of the 5.8 million people in America who cannot exercise their right to vote because of a previous felony conviction, 1.5 million of them reside in Florida. “This punishment is a legacy of less-civilized times,” he added.

Other than Iowa, Florida is the only state in the nation that imposes a lifetime ban on ex-felons.

When Rick Scott was elected governor in 2011, he rolled back the policy set in place by his predecessor, Charlie Crist, who automatically restored the rights of many felony offenders who had completed their sentences. Scott introduced new rules requiring that people convicted of nonviolent felonies wait five years before they can apply to have their civil rights restored; those convicted of violent and certain, more serious offenses must wait seven years to apply. As of last December, Scott had restored the rights of just 1,866 ex-felons, while tens of thousands of former inmates are released each year, stripped of their right to vote, according to the Intercept.

“In 10 other states, you can lose your right to vote while in jail for a misdemeanor,” Grayson said, citing infractions such as public intoxication, reckless driving and disorderly conduct as costing people the franchise in particular states. “Frankly, if Congress were held to that standard, I’d be the only one left,” he quipped.

Grayson’s proposal — called The No One Can Take Away Your Right to Vote Act of 2016 — would remedy that, he says. It would restore the rights of Americans who have served their time (except those convicted of murder or sex offenses).

“It’s a bill about redemption, second chances and about closure,” he said. “We can’t have first-class citizens and second-class citizens America.”

Progressive Caucus Chairman Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Michigan Rep. Jon Conyers are co-sponsors of the bill in the House. Conyers sponsored a previous version.

Grayson also said that regardless of whether he wins or loses his bid for U.S. Senate in Florida this year, he’s determined to get behind efforts to have Florida change their law. That means supporting an effort to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, an endeavor activist and former convicted felon Desmond Meade attempted this past year.

Though that effort failed to materialize, Meade says his organization, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, is working hard on collecting the approximately 683,000 signatures needed to qualify for the 2018 ballot. “At this point we’re nearing triggering the legal review process, we’re actually less than 9,000 (signatures).”

“We’re very excited to reach this benchmark when you’re talking about an effort that was clearly grassroots,” Meade added.

“Desmond and I have already discussed possible sources of funding for an effort like this,” Grayson said, aware that mounting a serious attempt to get such a measure on the ballot will probably require millions of dollars. “How to collect the petitions, how to get through the legal process and how to properly inform the voters.”

The League of Women Voters had been supporting Meade in his effort to get on the ballot in 2016, but backed away from their support in September 2015 over concerns about the measure having enough financial support. Meade admitted as much at the time, telling FloridaPolitics.com that “we don’t have any sugar daddies to help fund us.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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