ACLU plan to spend millions on campaign to restore felons’ voting rights surprised Desmond Meade

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No one in Florida has worked harder than Desmond Meade to expand felons’ voting rights.

Starting in 2015, Meade and his organization, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, have blanketed the state and collected signatures to place on the ballot an initiative that would overturn the automatic ban on felons voting. Although the group fell short for the 2016 election cycle, language to get the measure on the 2018 ballot won the approval of the Florida Supreme Court earlier this year.

So, when the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel broke the news last week that the American Civil Liberties Union would invest “at least $5 million” towards collecting the more than 700,000 signatures needed, you’d have thought that the venerable civil liberties organization would have given Meade a heads-up.

However, that wasn’t the case.

“I think I got the news at the same time that you did, which was from the Washington Post article that was posted a few days ago,” Meade said on Aug. 3, adding that he couldn’t really “speak to the mechanism of the thinking beyond that.”

While Meade isn’t upset about the lack of advanced notice, he’s not ecstatic, either.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” is what he says, hopeful that the news doesn’t give advocates a false sense of security that it’s now a done deal to get the 753,000 plus signatures that will be required by early next year to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition cobbled together more than 71,000 signatures this spring to have the measure’s ballot language reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court.

But the group still needs to get hundreds of thousands more signatures over the next six months.

“We really welcome support from a broad range of sources, and we have been getting that,” Meade said, trying to curb his enthusiasm.

“Anytime we get support to help move our measure forward, it’s definitely welcome,” he said.

The Fair Elections Legal Network filed a class-action lawsuit earlier this year challenging the state clemency board’s process for restoring rights.

According to the lawsuit, more than 10,000 citizens are waiting for a hearing on their restoration applications, which can take as long as 10 years. In addition, the Network argues there are no clear guidelines or standards for who is approved or who isn’t, giving Gov. Scott and his cabinet “unfettered discretion” in the decisions. The group’s lawsuit quotes Gov. Rick Scott himself as admitting at one of the clemency board’s last hearing that “Clemency is … is – there’s no standard. We can do whatever we want.”

A reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November 2014, Mitch Perry previously served as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He’s a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com. His column appears courtesy of FloridaPolitics.com.

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