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Despite Confusion About Amendment 4, Florida Is Granting Felons Voting Rights

Feb 28, 2019
Originally published on February 28, 2019 7:50 am

Despite ongoing confusion about the roll out of a recent expansion of voting rights in Florida, county election offices across the state say people who rushed to register to vote when Amendment 4 went into effect in January have been issued voter information cards with no issues.

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Supervisor of Elections offices in Broward, Palm Beach, Monroe and Hillsborough Counties told WLRN that 100 percent of the people who registered to vote in January have been sent their voter registration cards. That includes many people who told media they showed up to register to vote on the day Amendment 4 went into effect, January 8.

Florida voters passed Amendment 4 in November with 65 percent of the vote. The amendment to the state constitution expanded the right to vote for over a million people with felony convictions in the state, so long as all the terms of their sentence have been completed.

Lawmakers and watchdogs have publicly squabbled over the definition of when a sentence is completed. As WLRN has reported, a major issue is whether fines associated with felony convictions need to be paid before someone registers to vote.

If that interpretation is taken, Florida residents could owe hundreds of millions of dollars before being eligible to vote.

“I would argue that no, your sentence is not up until you pay all your fines,” State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a proponent of many criminal justice reform initiatives, recently told WLRN. “I don’t think any county supervisor of elections in the state can say with certainty that they know which people on their rolls are actually eligible to vote.”

But elections supervisors have been sending voter information cards to new registrants across the state, including those with felony convictions. Those cards serve as an acknowledgement that the state has backgrounded the registrant and they are indeed eligible to vote.

“It’s done. It’s done,” Joyce Griffin, the Supervisor of Elections for Monroe County, said of uncertainty about how the Amendment will get rolled out. “It’s almost like, you get into a fight and it’s hard to calm down afterwards. You need a second to pause and slow your heart rate. That’s what it was like for this: the fight to get it passed was so intense, people were still riled up and uncertain about what would happen that it was like they were gearing up for the next fight. But I’ll tell you -- the fight is over.”

Clarence Office, who owes over $1,000 in fines related to a felony charge from a decade ago, even got his card in the mail. WLRN was with him when he registered to vote the day Amendment 4 went into effect, and later talked with him for a story about how pending fines could potentially impact his right to vote.

“It took about three weeks to come in,” Office said by phone. “As soon as the first election comes up, I’ll be voting,

Prominent advocates for the passage of Amendment 4 have received their voter information cards in the mail. Desmond Meade, who spearheaded the entire effort, told WLRN he received his voter registration card in the mail from the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office. His colleague Neil Volz, with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, received his card from the Lee County Supervisor of Elections Office in late January. He posted a photo on Twitter.

"I teared up, I hugged my wife. I sent out some text messages and phone calls and just celebrated," Volz told WLRN. "Not a day goes by that I don’t get a text message or a Facebook message from somebody who’s getting their voting card. It’s happening all across the state in all 67 counties."

The impact of any new registrations could technically be immediate.

Local elections began as early as February 19, when Golden Beach, a small city in Miami-Dade County, held an election. On March 5, the population center Tampa has a closely watched municipal election, including a Mayor’s race. The following week there is an election in Duval County, which includes Jacksonville. That election includes races for Jacksonville city Mayor, Duval County Sheriff, and other top county and city posts.

The Supervisor of Elections for Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, has also sent voter identification cards to 100 percent of people who have registered to vote since Amendment 4 came into effect, the office told WLRN. The elections office in Duval County did not respond to requests for comment.

Two committees in the Florida Senate have held hearings about how to implement Amendment 4, and have questioned whether legislation still needs to be passed and signed from the Governor before it gets implemented. As of now, no bills directly addressing Amendment 4 have been filed by either chamber of the Florida legislature.

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