With its passage on November 6, Amendment 4 granted over a million felons across the state the right to vote.
But with its effective date less than two months away and in the midst of a transitionary period for a newly elected state government, no one seems to know precisely how the will of the voters will be carried out.
One of the amendment's drafters says it’s “self-executing” and shouldn't involve the legislature or politicians. The head of the state Republican Party says it’s a “conversation we’re going to have to have” in the state legislature. Elections officials across the state say they’re in the dark, and so far the Florida Division of Elections hasn’t said a peep.
There are several theories as to how Amendment 4 should be rolled out. The first, and most utopian, is the view taken by Howard Simon, the executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. He sat on a committee that wrote the amendment.
“We think that on January 8th, when the constitutional amendment goes into effect, people can go to their supervisor of election [and register],” Simon told WLRN. “It says that voting rights ‘shall be restored.’ I don’t know what is unclear about that, what could be unclear about that.”
Simon says the language is “self-executing” because it is concise. “We worked on this language intentionally to say that there is no role for politicians. People in the legislature, people in the Governor’s office, people in the Secretary of State’s office -- there’s no role for politicians to decide who gets to vote in Florida and who doesn’t get to vote in Florida,” Simon said.
But Republican State Sen. Dennis Baxley, the chair of the Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee, said there likely is a role for politicians. He believes procedures are needed to verify voters' eligibility.
“It’s not unusual when you have a constitutional amendment to have a period of review, to look at - ‘how will this actually work?’” Baxley said. “I suspect that’s one that needs some legislative guidance.”
“The intent of the amendment is clear, it’s just the how that’s the question,” he reiterated.
Blaise Ingoglia, State Rep. for the 35th District and the chair of the Republican Party of Florida, agreed with Baxley.
“There will be numerous what we call ‘implementing bills’ that are going to be offered by various members of the House and the Senate,” Ingoglia told WLRN. “That’s a conversation we’re going to have to have in the Senate.”
“We’re gonna get it done this session, what it’s gonna look like, obviously we don’t know,” he added.
Baxley, who was just named chair of the Ethics and Elections Committee this week, assured that there will be no “slow rolling” of the amendment.
Another potential issue with the legislative approach: The next legislative session doesn’t start until March, two months after over a million felons will legally be able to register to vote for the 2020 general election, according to the newly amended constitution. Potential conflicts could emerge if things aren’t up and running by then.
“There will be people registering to vote on January 8th, you bet,” said Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which campaigned for Amendment 4. Twelve years ago, Volz was arrested for a felony, but has since stayed out of trouble.
“I’ll be in the front of the line in Lee County, and I know other people who are also going to be in line,” he said. “For us, this is our lives.”
Several municipalities across the state are holding elections as early as February and March. If someone impacted by Amendment 4 registered to vote on January 8, they should be able to vote in those elections.
But different parts of the state government are signaling things will not be running by that time.
The Florida Commission of Offender Review is the state entity tasked with reviewing and restoring the rights of inmates and offenders after criminal proceedings have finished. Kelly Corder, the director of communications for the agency, wrote to WLRN in an email that the state’s Clemency Board -- composed of the Governor, Attorney General, Agricultural Commissioner and Chief Financial Officer -- has “temporarily postponed consideration of pending applications for restoration of civil rights while the new framework required to implement the constitutional changes is defined.”
The changes “may include the need for implementing legislation in the upcoming legislative session,” Corder wrote. She referred any further questions to the Governor’s Office.
Asked what steps the Governor’s Office is taking to implement Amendment 4 by the time it goes into effect on January 8, Ashley Cook, press secretary for Gov. Rick Scott only said: “This constitutional amendment takes effect in January, as outlined in Florida’s constitution.”
Requests for comment from Governor-elect Ron DeSantis’ transition team were not returned. Both the current and incoming governors campaigned against Amendment 4 in the 2018 election cycle. The executive branch has a considerable amount of discretion over how policies are interpreted and implemented, since its Departments are often where the rubber hits the road.
Florida Department of Corrections press secretary Patrick Manderfield wrote in an email that the Department is currently “reviewing its protocols and policies and will work with the appropriate agencies … to ensure compliance with Florida law as it is implemented.”
Much of the back-end criminal justice data that underpins the Department of State’s determination that someone is legally able to vote is handled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A spokesperson said Amendment 4 “requires legislative implementation” before the Department of Law Enforcement is able to make any changes to existing processes.
No matter which form of action is taken to ultimately put the amendment into effect, it’s clear the Department of State, which oversees the Florida Division of Elections, will have to be involved.
Sarah Revell, a spokesperson for the Department of State, wrote in an email that she would “share more information as it becomes available.”
“We don’t know anything,” said Joyce Griffin, Supervisor of Elections of Monroe County in the Florida Keys. “None of the counties do.”
Several other counties contacted by WLRN, including Miami-Dade, also said they had not yet received any guidance from the Department of State about how to prepare for January 8.
The second question on Florida voter registration forms reads: “I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored.” The forms are handled by county officials, before being sent up to the state for the verification of eligibility.
“I’m going to have to be given some guidelines. You can’t just ignore the question,” said Griffin.
When reached, Chris Moore, deputy supervisor of elections in Leon County, said: “Funny you bring this up. I just left a voicemail with someone at the Department of State about an hour ago trying to get some information on this.”
Susan Bucher, the supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County, said she doesn't expect to hear much from the Department of State. “The legislature has to provide legislative guidance before that goes into effect,” she said. Asked if that means she doesn't expect Amendment 4 will be ready to roll out on January 8, she said: “That is correct.”
The supervisor of elections for Orange County, Bill Cowles, said the main question is how will the state do its part to verify the responses to that question. "As far as I know, people will be able to walk into our office on January 8th and check the box that their rights have been restored," he said. "But somebody at the state is going to have to scrub the registrations that come in, and I don't know what that process will look like."
Next week, the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections is holding a meeting in Sarasota. The agenda for the event shows Florida Division of Elections director Maria Matthews will be speaking to all the 67 county supervisors of elections from across the state, but nothing on the agenda mentions Amendment 4. Griffin said and Cowles hope Matthews brings some clarity to the subject.
“Some of this might get worked out procedurally between now and the session, because all these different parts have to talk to each other,” said State Sen. Baxley. “The good part is we have time before the next election.”