It has been eight years since Neil Volz finished serving probation on a felony charge stemming from a congressional corruption scandal.
During that time Volz has continued to atone for his crime. He went to work for his Fort Myers church helping homeless individuals dealing with drug and alcohol issues. He currently chairs the Lee County Homeless Coalition.
But even as Volz married and became a dedicated member of his community who is devoted to helping the less fortunate, one measure of redemption eluded him: he still cannot vote.
If Volz lived in Washington, D.C., where the crime occurred, he’d be able to vote. But he moved to Florida in 2008, and the state has one of the most restrictive laws in the nation regarding the voting rights of convicted felons.
Florida’s law — which was embedded in the state constitution shortly after the Civil War — has long been criticized by those who view it as unjust and racially biased. Now Volz and others are mounting an aggressive campaign to overturn the measure, which barred nearly 1.5 million felons who have completed their sentences from voting last year, according to estimates from The Sentencing Project.
Fueled by a $5 million contribution from the American Civil Liberties Union, a coalition of various activist groups is working to gather enough signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would automatically restore voting rights for most felons — murderers and sex offenders excluded — after they complete the terms of their sentence.
“I feel for so many people in the state who aren’t fully able to participate in their communities,” Volz said. “I think this is an opportunity to make our state better.”
The effort already has cleared a number of important hurdles, including gathering enough signatures for a state Supreme Court review that determined the amendment is legally permissible.
With paid signature gatherers joining the volunteer effort earlier this month, organizers say they are optimistic they will meet the requirement of gathering 766,200 signatures by Feb. 1.
But that’s a tight deadline, and even if the measure makes it on the ballot, there is growing resistance to seeing it become law. A conservative Tampa lawyer recently established a nonprofit group that is dedicated to fighting the ballot measure, and some leading Republicans are wary of the initiative.
Many of those who would have their voting rights restored are African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
“I think it’s definitely an uphill battle to try and convince Republicans it’s a worthy effort,” said Rodney Jones, president of the Manatee County chapter of the NAACP. “They know it’s potentially a game changer.”
Florida an outlier
While the political ramifications of allowing so many new voters in Florida — the nation’s largest swing state and one that went for President Donald Trump by just 112,911 votes — certainly will factor into the debate, supporters of the amendment are trying to frame the issue in moral terms.
“This is a scandalous ethical and moral situation that we have,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
Simon pointed out that Florida’s current law dates back to 1868, a time shortly after the Civil War when many southern states were trying to limit the political influence of former slaves.
A report by the Brennan Center for Justice — which has challenged the law in court — argued that “the law is rooted in a racist past.”
“It is time to end this vestige of Jim Crow,” the report concludes.
But courts have upheld the law, and the Brennan Center’s lawsuit aimed at overturning it ended in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
The law has persisted, even as other states have made it easier for felons to vote.
Florida requires felons to wait five to seven years after they complete their sentence to apply to have their voting rights and other civil rights restored. Offenders must apply to the Board of Executive Clemency, which includes Gov. Rick Scott and three other statewide elected officials. The board meets four times a year to consider clemency cases.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist streamlined the system and allowed many more felons to get their rights restored. But Scott and the Florida Cabinet reversed that decision. Under Scott, only 2,772 felons have had their voting rights restored, and 10,362 are currently on a waiting list.
Florida is one of just three states that revokes felons’ voting rights for life unless they go through a clemency process. The strict system has made the state “an outlier in denying voting rights,” according to the Brennan Center.
Florida has 48 percent of the nation’s felons who have completed their sentences but still cannot vote, according to The Sentencing Project analysis. Other large states such as California and New York automatically restore voting rights for felons once they’re released from prison and done with parole.
Even Texas — which, like Florida, is a large state with strongly conservative leadership — automatically restores voting rights once felons have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole and probation.
So while Florida has nearly 1.5 million felons who have completed their sentences but cannot vote, Texas has none.
Florida’s law also disproportionately impacts African-Americans. One in 10 Floridians of voting age cannot vote because of a felony conviction, but that ratio is more than one in five for African-Americans, according to The Sentencing Project.
State Rep. Wengay Newton, an African-American lawmaker who represents a district that stretches from St. Petersburg to Sarasota and includes many predominantly African-American communities, said his constituents regularly raise the issue of felon disenfranchisement with him.
“When I was running, a bunch of them came up to me in churches saying, ‘I can’t even vote,'” Newton said. “They waved signs in support, but they couldn’t vote for me.”
Felon disenfranchisement has long been a sore point in African-American communities across Florida.
Jones, the Manatee County NACCP president, said his organization has prioritized the issue for years, with little progress.
“We had a couple restoration-of-rights workshops, but that process is decrepit,” Jones said of Florida’s executive clemency system. “It’s just like a dangling entity that has no value and is just there to give people a little false hope.”
Some supporters are trying to downplay the racial dimension of the amendment, though. They point out that there are more white felons who are disenfranchised than African-Americans.
The biggest obstacle to approving the amendment will be convincing Republicans worried that most of the newly enfranchised voters will side with Democrats, potentially altering the state’s political landscape in a major way.
Already, opposition to the amendment from conservatives is starting to build.
Tampa attorney Richard Harrison recently formed the group Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy to push back against the amendment.
The blanket restoration of voting rights for most felons who complete their sentences “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Harrison said.
Many violent felons who committed crimes short of murder would get their rights restored, he pointed out. Harrison believes a more “reasonable” proposal would look at the severity of the crime, whether the convicted person had other offenses and how they’ve behaved since serving their sentence, among other factors.
“It seems kind of silly to say we’re just going to hand everybody a voting card on their way out the door,” Harrison said.
Harrison, a Republican, pointed to the fact that the amendment has strong support from liberal-leaning groups to argue it as about more than just restoring people’s civil rights.
“Is it political? Yes,” Harrison said. “Is there some motivation underlying this to add to the number of registered Democrats? Anybody who says that’s not the case is not paying attention.”
‘Struggling for a second chance’
Volz is well-versed in politics. He was chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who went to prison in the public corruption scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Volz left Ney’s office to work for Abramoff and was implicated in the scandal, pleading guilty in 2006. He moved to Florida in 2008 and set about turning his life around.
Through his ministry work helping the poor, Volz said he became passionate about helping people “who are struggling for a second chance.”
Volz began to connect his own situation, and the broader issue of felon disenfranchisement, to the work he was doing helping people rebuild their lives. A few months ago he went to work full time for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group that is working on the constitutional amendment.
“We don’t see this as a political issue,” he said, adding: “Restoring the ability to vote for people who have paid their debt to society reflects our shared values. That’s a unifying thing.”
Volz applied to get his rights restored through Florida’s current system but found it “very cumbersome.” He became frustrated and began to see he wasn’t alone. Now he’s devoting himself to the issue full time, viewing it as one more step in his effort to move beyond the “selfishness” that led to his crime and help others.
“Having walked through the last couple of years, I’m a person of faith, and one of the things I love is how God uses people who are hurting and broken and sometimes forgotten to do big things.”