Last November, nearly 65% of Florida voters backed a ballot initiative known as the Voting Restoration Act, or Amendment 4, to overturn the state’s lifetime disenfranchisement of persons with felony convictions. Florida’s Constitution has long had the nation’s strictest bar to post-conviction voting, keeping an estimated 1.4 million residents – over nine per cent of the voting-age population – from being able to cast a vote because of their criminal records.
About 1.2 million Florida voters signed petitions to get the measure on the ballot, and the measure’s diverse supporters ranged from the American Civil Liberties Union’s Florida chapter to right-leaning“smart on crime” advocates like Freedom Partners, a Koch Industries-backed group.
The approved measure allows Florida residents who’ve been convicted of a felony to have their voting rights restored if they have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation. But it doesn’t apply to those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses; they’re still permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and the Cabinet both vote to restore an applicant’s voting rights.
Although the voter-approved amendment says it takes effect in early January 2019, confusion abounds in the state, primarily because, local voting officials say, they’ve been given no guidance on how to implement the new law.
Former governor Rick Scott said nothing about how local officials should carry it out, and newly elected governor Ron DeSantis, who opposed Amendment 4 during his campaign, says the state legislature – which won’t be in session until March 5 – should pass a law to clarify how the new measure will work.
Elections supervisors in some of the state’s 67 counties planned to begin registering potential voters with criminal records as soon as Amendment 4 takes effect on January 8. State officials, though, say that if the counties start before the legislature passes legislation interpreting and implementing the new measure, local officials’ inconsistent decisions could add further confusion and lead to equal-protection lawsuits from applicants whose attempts to register are rejected.
Under the previous system, various state officials sent notifications of felony convictions to local elections officials, so that felons could be removed from voter rolls, and sent update notices when felons were released, or completed terms of their imprisonment, such as finishing probation, making full restitution, paying court-imposed fees, or satisfying other conditions of their terms.
Paperwork under that complex system could take up to four months. The governor and state government say definitions and procedures are needed before a new system can function effectively and consistently. They have placed a freeze on sending notices on ex-felons’ status, waiting for legislative guidance.
Many backers of the voter-passed measure say they’re concerned the governor or legislature may try to put new obstacles in the way of at least parts of Amendment 4. They argue the measure was meant to be self-activating, so does not require additional guidance from the state legislature or state officials.
In addition to bureaucratic and legal questions raised by the current controversy, the current impasse may have significant political consequences: A well-functioning new system for re-enfranchising former felons could produce a million or so new voters in a traditional battleground state in presidential elections.
Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at https://sentencing.net, https://compassionaterelease.com, and https://clemency.com.