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Rep. Soto: Florida ‘extreme outlier’ in voting rights restoration

Posted on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 at 1:00 pm

By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
Kissimmee resident Naji Aalim is one of 1.5 million Floridians who can’t vote because of a previous felony conviction.
Aalim finished serving his prison sentence for burglary a decade ago. Since then, he has twice applied and been denied his constitutional right to vote by the state of Florida.
“I did the time, I served my sentence, I paid my debt to society. Then I get out and I can’t get my rights back,” said Aalim.
The first time he applied, he said, state officials told him he hadn’t been out of

Darren Soto

prison long enough. The second time, they told him he still needed to pay restitution, which Aalim has disputed and even tried to pay, but to no avail.
Florida is one of only four states in the U.S. that permanently strips the right to vote from convicted felons. They can apply for their voting rights to be restored, but the process in Florida is tough and has become even more stringent in recent years under Gov. Rick Scott.
In March, a federal judge in Florida ordered Scott and the Cabinet to dismantle Florida’s “fatally flawed” system of arbitrarily restoring voting rights to felons and to replace it. An appeals court, however, in April sided with Scott, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and two other Cabinet members who constitute the state’s clemency board.
After taking office in 2011, Scott and Bondi played key roles in changing the process to effectively make it harder for felons to get their rights restored.
Under the current process, felons must wait five to seven years after their sentences are complete to apply to have rights restored. After applications are filed, the process can take years to complete. Only about 8 percent of applications are eventually approved.
Still, a movement to automatically restore voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions amassed enough support – 1 million signatures of support from Florida voters – to get the issue on the November ballot. Amendment 4, if passed, would automatically restore voting rights to people with prior felony convictions upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation. The proposed amendment specifically excludes those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.
Congressman Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) last week hosted a town hall meeting in Haines City on the issue with Sen. Bill Nelson and fellow Congressman Cedric Richmond, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from Louisiana.
“Florida is an extreme outlier when it comes to restoring voting rights, an extreme minority among the rest of the country,”
Soto said. “Many states do this automatically. It’s only four states in the south that don’t.”
Florida’s constitution automatically bars ex-felons from voting. The measure was adopted by the state Legislature following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
It’s considered one of the crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement.
“This was a discriminatory response to our country establishing equal rights and justice for communities of color. It harkens back to a darker time in Florida’s history,” Soto said.
“I think once people realize the context of this law – one that only four other states in the south have – they will see why we need to turn the page.”
Florida’s restoration system disproportionately affects African-Americans, who typically favor Democratic candidates. About one of five black people of voting age in Florida cannot vote.
For Aalim, who is black, getting the right to vote again has been frustrating, but not more so than finding work and housing.
Aalim’s income mostly comes from Social Security, and he rents his home from a fellow Muslim. He said the struggle to reintegrate back into society is so difficult for many that it leads them astray and eventually back into prison.
“It feels like the criminal justice system has its foot on your throat so you go back to prison. It doesn’t matter if you’ve redeemed yourself and you’re a positive person who wants to do something with your life, they want you back in. The system is set up for you to fail.”
Aalim works with men just coming out of prison, and though he would like to establish a 501c-3 nonprofit to help in that effort, he said, “I can’t do that either.”
Aalim added that restoring prior felons voting rights would be a morale boost and could be a big help to open more doors for ex-convicts to transition into productive, law-abiding citizens.
“We’re all human. We all make mistakes,” he said. “But to take away someone’s constitutional right to vote to punish them for something they’ve already paid for is not only unfair, it’s unjust.”