For leaders of the Christian Coalition of America, the letting ex-felons vote seemed a no-brainer.
“Redemption and second chances are really at the heart of the Christian faith,” said Keith den Hollander, national field director.
So now, the famously conservative organization stands with liberal organizations, like the ACLU, in championing Amendment 4, which would automatically restore the voting rights of most felons – except those convicted of first-degree murder and sex offenses – upon completing their restitution to the state.
A new ad is airing by Christian Coalition of America features Brett Ramsden, Florida Justice Initiatives director, discussing his own experience being stripped of the right to vote.
Ramsden, a recovering opioid abuser, said during 12 years of serious addiction, it never occurred to him he might be putting his right to vote on the line.
That’s partly because while he committed numerous misdemeanor thefts in service of his addiction, he never got arrested on a felony charge. But Florida’s legal system raises the stakes for repeat offenders. And while Ramsden eventually was sentenced to two years of felony probation, he never spent a day in prison.
“That’s another misnomer. Seventy-five percent of returning citizens never did serve any prison time. Our offenses weren’t considered severe enough to warrant prison sentences.”
The Sarasota resident is now sober and involved in the political cause of promoting restoration of rights.
“Voting is really important,” Ramsden said. “It’s our civic duty as Americans to vote.”
Ramsden also notes that sentences in full get determined by judges, but a lifetime ban on voting rights takes place based on statute, regardless of the circumstances and severity of a crime.
Yet a frequent concern among conservative political organizations remains what effect a sudden infusion of millions of ex-voters onto the voter rolls.
The Heritage Foundation has produced detailed arguments on why felons should lose the right to vote and argues that with more than half of felons becoming repeat offenders, there should be a process for seeking clemency after a sentence is completed before rights get restored.
“It makes sense to wait some period of time, as Florida does, to make sure that the felon really has turned over a new leaf,” wrote Roger Clegg and Hans von Spakovsky for the foundation.
Ramsden, though, said Florida’s clemency system remains broken. He still must wait years before he can apply for clemency despite finishing his sentence in 2014, and there’s now a seven-year backlog on requests being heard by Florida’s Cabinet.
As for practical concerns that ex-cons will all vote Democrat, meaning they could vote against the Christian Coalition’s normally conservative agenda, den Hollander holds little patience for that argument.
“I have found when that argument gets made, it usually has its roots in systemic racism,” he said. “The people making that argument make assumptions on who they think it is who has a felony record and how it is they will vote.”
The Christian Coalition of America believes criminals should serve their appropriate time, but he said the point of sentencing should be “corrections” and not “punishment.” That means encouraging re-entry to society, not putting up barriers.
Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears courtesy of FloridaPolitics.com.