More than one million felons in Florida are supposed to be able to register to vote in a little over three weeks.
Amendment 4 —the ‘Voting Restoration Amendment’ — was approved by 65 percent of voters on Nov. 6, amending the state constitution to return the right to vote to most felons after they’ve served their sentences. It goes into effect January 8.
But there’s confusion around how the state will implement it.
The amendment’s crafters argue that it was written in a way that mandates that felons be able to register to vote automatically on Jan. 8, with the burden on the state to arrange the details. In theory, those newly eligible simply have to register to vote as any other eligible voter would.
But WLRN reporter Danny Rivero, who has been reporting on Amendment 4, said that’s not the case thus far.
“I’ve talked to several supervisors of elections across the state, and up to now they have received no guidance about how they should be managing this process,” Rivero said Friday on The Florida Roundup.
This week, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis said the constitutional amendment shouldn’t go into effect until after state lawmakers pass a law laying out how to implement it. The 2019 Legislative session begins in March; a number of counties, including Miami-Dade and Pinellas, have elections before then.
“I don’t think that it’s self-executing,” DeSantis said on the Palm Beach Post podcast Inside Florida. “I think that if you look, they have exceptions for who’s not eligible for that. They do not enumerate the statutes you can violate. There needs to be implementing language. I don’t see anyway around that.”
DeSantis isn’t the only lawmaker suggesting the legislature should get involved. In November, Republican State Senator Dennis Baxley, the chair of the Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee, told Rivero:
“It’s not unusual when you have a constitutional amendment to have a period of review, to look at - ‘how will this actually work?' I suspect that’s one that needs some legislative guidance.”
Current restrictions on felon voting date back to the 1800s, and are widely seen as racially charged. In Florida, the post-Civil War constitution drafted in 1865 prohibited blacks from voting. In 1868, it was revised to allow “all males” to vote, but continued to leave out ex-felons.
Before the constitutional amendment was passed, Florida had one of the most restrictive voting bans in the nation. Only three other states completely prohibit felons from regaining their right to vote after they complete their sentence: Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia.
As it currently stands, the state clemency board — made up of the governor, the state’s chief financial officer, attorney general, and agriculture commissioner — has to decide whether or not a Florida felon should be allowed to vote. But in practice, that rarely happens.
A recent Palm Beach Post investigation found that Gov. Rick Scott’s system of restoring voting rights “has for years discriminated against black felons, boosting his own political prospects and those of other Republicans throughout the state.”
Amendment 4 states “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” It makes exceptions for anyone convicted of murder or a felony sex crime.
That could mean over a million new voters in Florida — a historic enfranchisement that’s been compared to the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920. Florida’s voting population could increase by 10%.
“There’s no understating it,” Rivero said. “If this goes into effect exactly as implemented, this is nothing short of historic.”
Rivero said he believes the matter will soon make its way to the courts.