Brett Ramsden spent his early adulthood in and out of jail for breaking into homes, reckless driving, and stealing merchandise from local retail stores to support his opioid habit. In the summer of 2013, the native of Palmetto—a small city near Tampa on Florida’s west coast—was charged with seven felony counts of theft following a three-month shoplifting spree. He pleaded guilty to the charges as part of a deal that allowed him to receive probation and enter a one-year rehabilitation program. In 2015, when his probation ended, Ramsden briefly moved to Houston, Texas, where felons have their rights automatically restored upon completion of their sentence. As a result, Ramsden was able to cast his vote in the 2016 presidential election.
But when the 36-year-old, his wife, and their baby daughter returned to Florida early last year, they found out felons there have virtually no shot at voting due to a draconian clemency process. After a minimum five-year waiting period, felons can make their case before a four-member board that includes the governor and three cabinet members. During Rick Scott’s eight-year run as the state's chief, the clemency board has seemed to base who gets their rights restored in large part on their racial background and party affiliation.
Ramsden, who is white, hasn’t reached the five-year waiting period and would still have to wait even longer due to a backlog of more than 10,000 clemency cases. So he decided to take this issue directly to the people of Florida, leading a get-out-the-vote drive with the Christian Coalition of Florida on behalf of a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore most felons' rights in the Sunshine State. The measure is on the November 6 ballot, and Ramsden is doing everything he can to ensure it passes. This is his story in his own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
I completely turned my life around after just living to find money anyway I could to keep myself from getting dope-sick. I faced serious jail time in 2013, but got lucky: A relative found a free, one-year rehab program at a treatment center called Justin’s Place that was willing to accept me. The felony charges were the springboard for getting me into recovery. My sober date is January 17, 2014. I've been clean ever since.
About a year later, I became reacquainted with Mallery, a childhood friend whose brother needed help getting into a treatment center. I helped him get a spot at Justin’s Place and Mallery and I started dating. It was a long distance relationship at first. She spent a lot of time traveling back and forth from Houston, where she lived. When my probation ended on November 17, 2015, I took a leap of faith and moved to Houston to be with her. We lived there for a year and half.
I can’t remember if I early voted or cast my vote on election day in 2016, but I do recall that when I got to the voting precinct I was assigned to in Houston, there were several hundred people waiting to go in. I had never dealt with a line that long before. It took me at least 30 to 45 minutes to get through it.
I was very excited because the last time I voted was in 2000, shortly after I graduated high school. Regrettably, I voted for George W. Bush. I won’t say who I voted for president in 2016, but it definitely wasn’t the guy who is in the White House now. That’s for sure.
Shortly after the election, my wife had our baby daughter and we decided to move back to Florida to be closer to our families. At the time, I didn’t know a whole lot about the process for restoring my rights in Florida. I did know that if you get an “adjudication withheld” on a felony charge, you are still eligible. On some of my convictions, that is what happened.
I tried to register to vote on the Sarasota County website, but it kicked back a message that said I was ineligible because of my shoplifting felony convictions. It made me really angry. At the time, I was struggling to get a job. I’d find employment, but then couldn’t pass a background check. In Texas, my rights were automatically restored because I had completed my sentence. Yet in Florida, I don’t qualify for clemency.
I decided to do something about it.
For the last five months, I have been volunteering for the passage of a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore felons’ rights. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition produced a mailer and a TV ad that tells my family’s story. The reaction has been surreal. My wife’s boss saw it and told me he is voting yes. Some of my dad’s conservative friends have also voiced their support for the amendment.
I'm also working for the Christian Coalition of Florida. We are doing our own campaign raising awareness and educating people. Obviously, we have more conservative members. My main focus has been getting into churches throughout the state and talking to the pastors and their congregations.
It’s our patriotic duty to get this amendment passed.
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