by Joanie Cox Henry, South Florida Sun-Sentinel July 11, 2017
Delray Beach resident Arlene Ustin proudly declares her love for the United States and its freedoms. As the granddaughter of a Russian immigrant who came to America in 1906 to escape anti-Jewish pogroms, Ustin dons red, white and blue accessories and has a selfie with Hillary Clinton. She also works tirelessly to gather signatures on a petition for a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation. She has been collecting signatures since 2014.
“I was in charge of voter registration while I was campaigning [for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton] and I quickly realized how many people are unable to vote because of a felony conviction,” she said. “Some of these people got arrested for trespassing or possession of marijuana when they were very young and they still have not got their right back to vote.”
For nearly two centuries, the state has maintained some of the toughest terms for ex-felons seeking the right to vote, Ustin said.
“Florida, Iowa and Kentucky do not allow ex-felons who have served part or all of their sentences the right to vote for the rest of their lives,” she said. “In Florida, you have to wait five to seven years and then you have to apply and get on a list for your appeal to be heard. If you get arrested again during that time, the process starts all over.”
Ustin said she has encountered several people who were convicted of non-violent felonies throughout the state who give up on the right to vote again because they can’t afford legal representation during the process or they don’t know where to begin.
“Some people even have the right restored and aren’t aware they are able to vote again,” she said. “When I meet former offenders, also called ‘returning citizens,’ which is more dignified, who do not know their voting status or know others in the same situation, I give a slip of paper out with information on how to contact the Public Defender’s office in West Palm Beach. Our public defender is Carey Haughwout, who is wonderful. The number to call is 561-355-7500.”
According to a Restoration of Voting Rights document prepared by activist Julie Thaler this year, 1.6 million Florida residents have lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction, including 23 percent of black residents.
In April, as reported in a Sunshine State News article, the Florida Supreme Court approved the language of the Voting Restoration Amendment and certified the more than 70,000 petition signatures in support of the constitutional referendum to allow ex-felons the right to vote. Those convicted of sex crimes or murders will still be denied.
While she faces opposition, Ustin continues her efforts with grace and and a smile.
“I absolutely hate labels,” she said. “With labels, no one listens. Our democracy is being challenged right now. I’m with the League of Women Voters and I did canvassing with Moveon.org throughout black communities in Delray Beach. Too many citizens have lost their right to vote. Our goal is to get this on the 2018 ballot so people can vote if this should become an amendment or not. This is a citizen-initiated effort.”
Ustin said she needs 770,220 petitions by December to get the issue on the ballot for next year. Her biggest challenge is that the signatures she’s already collected are only valid for two years.
She has been traveling across the state to bring awareness to her cause, including working with Florida Rights Restoration Coalition president Desmond Meade.
“Any grassroots effort takes time to build momentum,” Meade said in an Orlando Sentinelarticle. “I think more and more citizens are realizing Florida’s policies are outdated and unfair.”
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