Now What? Florida Wrestles With Implementing Felon Voting Rights Under Amendment 4
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In November 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which promises to restore voting rights to over a million people formerly convicted of felonies, but now there are numerous unanswered questions about how that is supposed to happen – and who will decide. The Orlando Sentinel has more:
Florida officials don’t yet have a plan for how to carry out a constitutional amendment that restores the right to vote to more than a million Floridians convicted of felonies, state Division of Elections director Maria Matthews told county elections supervisors Tuesday.
Amendment 4, approved by nearly 65 percent of voters last month, automatically restores voting rights for convicted felons who have completed their sentences, paid restitution and court costs and fulfilled probation requirements. The amendment, which goes into effect Jan. 8, excludes murderers and felony sex offenders.
“The state is putting a pause button on felon identification files,” Matthews told supervisors gathered at the Westin hotel in Sarasota for a winter conference, referring to lists sent to county elections officials that flag people who are ineligible to vote.
Matthews said the state has about 30 days before the amendment goes into effect. Among the many issues at play are definitions in the amendment, such as when a sentence is completed, she pointed out.
State elections officials currently send lists of people who have been convicted of felonies to county supervisors, who then remove them from the voting rolls. County officials are hoping the state will expand that process to identify people who have been convicted of felonies but who are eligible to vote under the amendment.
One big issue is whether or not implementation requires legislative action – a question to which no one seems to know the answer:
Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards pressed Matthews on how long it would take for the state to provide guidance about the amendment, and whether the Legislature — which begins holding committee meetings next week but does not convene its 2019 session until March — would be responsible for implementing the voting-registration change.
“I think that is something that is still under debate,” Matthews said. “We’re hoping within the next month, this will flesh out so that we’ll be able to provide you the guidance that you need.”
Howard Simon, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which was one of the backers of Amendment 4, maintains that the amendment is self-implementing. The onus is on government officials to confirm the accuracy of information provided by individuals registering to vote, Simon said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
“So I’m not sure how much guidance the supervisors need from the state, and I don’t think there’s any role at all for the Legislature,” Simon told the News Service. “If a Florida citizen has completed all the terms of their sentence and can honestly affirm that, on Jan. 8, they are eligible to register to vote, there is nothing that the state can do or should do to delay that.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, said it’s up to the Legislature and the Board of Executive Clemency to draft a blueprint for the amendment.
“We need to get some direction from them as to implementation, definitions, all the kinds of things that the supervisors were asking,” Detzner said. “It would be inappropriate for us to charge off in a direction without some leadership from them.”
Notably, the lack of clarity extends to the legislature itself:
But legislative leaders haven’t decided whether they need to act.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said in a recent interview that there are “a lot of practical aspects to how these new voters will come online and what procedures would take place.”
House Speaker Jose Oliva also said he wanted to ensure voters’ wishes are carried out.
“I think it (the amendment) was rather broad but I think that the intent of the people was to make sure that those people who have paid their price to society for certain crimes were able to become a participant in our electoral process again. That part of it is pretty clear,” said Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.
This is a process-focused point that could have tremendous impact on the speed and scope of implementation. There is even some suggestion that absent some agreed-upon approach, different counties could move at their own pace and direction, which would then invite litigation on differential treatment of affected individuals statewide. The bottom line is that passage of Amendment 4 was just the first step; how – and how quickly – next steps occur remains to be seen. Stay tuned …