Convicted felons and their supporters from across the state on Tuesday gathered in Tallahassee to urge lawmakers to support a new amendment that would allow felons to vote again.
Members of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition advocated for the more than 1.6 million convicted felons in Florida to regain their voting rights.
They started with chants on the steps of the state capitol, then took their voices directly to their legislators in private meetings.
Among the coalition activists were Jhody Polk and Julius Irving, siblings from Gainesville who are fighting to have their voting rights restored.
Irving spent less than six months behind bars a decade ago for possession of cocaine.
“I actually believe in second chances for convicted felons, being that I am a convicted felon,” he said. “Florida is one of the few states that doesn’t forgive felons.”
Florida is one of four states whose constitution permanently bans convicted felons from voting and lets the governor choose whose rights are restored on an individual basis.
Polk spent seven years in prison following felony convictions involving grand theft and home invasion.
“We, more than anything, want to be able to have a say in our local elections because those people really affect our lives on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
Since Irving and Polk are both convicted felons in the state of Florida, it means they may never have the chance to vote in an election again.
But there’s a new initiative on this year’s ballot that could change all that.
If more than 60 percent of voters say yes to amendment 4, convicted felons in Florida will regain their voting rights, excluding murderers and sex offenders.
Polk was part of the effort to collect more than 766,000 signatures needed to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Irving and Polk joined a small group that sat down with Miami-area Democratic Representative Roy Hardemon, who has been arrested 19 times but never convicted of a felony. Hardmeon agreed with the group that ex-felons should have the right to vote.
“I’m right there with you … it’s all about the balance,” Hardemon told them. “That probation stuff that they put me on was slated to bring my back to prison. I was headed for prison. Sometimes I’d drive with no driver’s license and that’s a violation.”
He also agreed to vote in favor of a bill that would raise the threshold of a grand theft felony from $300 to $1,500, something Polk said could prevent many people from ever becoming convicted felons in the first place.
“You can tell that he understood,” she said after meeting with Hardemon. “He’s been directly impacted by incarceration, he’s from Miami and he’s actually doing work in his community.”