Supporters of rights restoration bill

Supporters for a bill that would automatically restore voting rights to convicted felons upon their release from prison hold up signs. Floridians will vote to restore rights to felons Nov. 6. The ballot measure is dubbed Amendment Four.

Anthony Bozman knows the pain.

The husband and father of five adult children was convicted of a felony charge 27 years ago. And he still can’t vote.

“I am a 55-year-old man who hides on election days,” said Bozman.

“It is the wound that refuses to heal,” said Bozman, who works two jobs and pays taxes. “They say they want you to be a productive citizen, but they deny you the right to be productive, to vote. It hurts a lot. … Especially election times.”

“People ask me on election day, ‘Oh, did you vote?’ I cannot say, ‘Yes, I voted.’ So I just evade the question altogether. I don’t answer, I change the subject. Which I shouldn’t have to do. I did my time.”

Bozman’s compelling story is highlighted in a study recently released by the Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization.

“Democracy Disappeared: How Florida Silences the Black Vote through Felony Disenfranchisement” gives an in-depth analysis on the social and emotional impact of an individual’s loss of his or her right to vote and the political and economic collateral damage to Black communities in Florida.

Ten Florida counties with substantial Black populations – including Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach – are reviewed in the report for negative socio-economic conditions, which could be reversed by returning the civil rights to ex-felons.

“This is about once you feel like a full citizen, you are empowered to feel like a father or mother figure. This is about overall life. And being given back the rights that were lost,” said Advancement Project spokeswoman Zerline Hughes Spruill.

The report uses the term “Returning Citizens” instead of ex-felons.

“Ex-felons has a negative tone” said Hughes Spruill. “Negative connotation. Prison bars. And some of these folks may have done things but many may have needed another way of dealing.”

“The key is more empowerment,” said Hughes Spruill. “Voting power could give these returning citizens a way to change their communities. They could work on their schools, gentrification issues, redistricting and actually go to the polls.”

The report shows that of the 6 million Americans who cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement, about 28 percent or 1.7 million of them live in Florida. Also, about 11 percent of voting-age Floridians are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

“Going to prison and having a felony conviction affect the entire family and community, said Dexter Gunn, 50, another disenfranchised Returning Citizen. “When you’re considered a leader in your family and you end up in prison, it disallows you from being there for the little things that count.

When you’re not there, you have a feeling of disconnect from not being present in the lives of people who matter the most.”

Ultimately, voter disenfranchisement affects “poor communities of all races and Black communities,” says the report.

“The disappearance of millions of Returning Citizens’ votes, including hundreds of thousands of Black votes in Black communities across hundreds of elections over many decades, prevents Black participation in the institutions where weighty decisions and policies are made,” states the report.

“Both those directly denied the right to vote and those in communities where their political power is mute – democracy has disappeared,” concludes the report.

“Florida has to address its failure to lend support to the communities to which these men and women return. 'Democracy Disappeared' makes clear where those resources should be spent in order to begin the process of making these people whole again,” said Dwight Bullard, political director of New Florida Majority.

The passage of the statewide ballot issue dubbed Amendment Four could have history-changing effects on the political structure of Florida – almost, if not equally impactful, as the election of Andrew Gillum as Florida’s first Black governor.

The effect of this change of law would grant those 1.7 million ex-felons the right to vote again. Interestingly, whites make up a majority of those ex-felons in the group.

In times when there are clear divisions on political beliefs, ridding the state of voter disenfranchisement has bipartisan support from both Progressive and Conservative organizations.

The Christian Coalition and other right-wing groups funded by the Koch Network have been pushing their voting blocks to support Amendment Four. Freedom Partners, based in Virginia, is supporting Amendment four.

“In the Sunshine State, Floridians are permanently excluded from voting because of a prior felony conviction – one of only four state with a lifetime ban. If we want people returning to society to be productive, law-abiding citizens, we need to treat them like full-fledged citizens,” said Freedom Partners in a press statement.

The group supports Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis despite the fact that the GOP hopeful has no stated position or open support for Amendment Four.

Gillum, the Democratic progressive candidate, is giving full vocal support to restoring voting rights for ex-felons.

“We have a chance November 6, to restore that right – that opportunity, and dignity, for all Floridians,” said Gillum last month during a campaign stop in front of the State Capitol.

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