Restoration of Vote to Ex-Cons Likely to Influence Outcomes in Florida

(CN) – A Florida ballot initiative to restore voting rights to most felons who have served their time ended 150 years of voter disenfranchisement and will fundamentally change politics in the Sunshine State.

Amendment 4, a ballot measure restoring voting rights to most felons who have served their time, passed overwhelmingly last Tuesday. The new addition to the state constitution ends 150 years of voter disenfranchisement.

The Sunshine State has the highest number of disenfranchised felons in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project. Florida was one of only three states that banned ex-convicts from voting for life. Now, only Iowa and Kentucky hold that distinction.

The amendment passed by 65 percent – a nod to support of all sides of the political spectrum.

Now, most former felons who complete their sentence, including probation and restitution, can register to vote beginning Jan. 8. Those convicted of murder or sexual offenses are excluded, but can still petition the state clemency board.

The new amendment could have sweeping effects in Florida, where statewide political candidates win by the smallest of margins.

“It is going to result in a fundamental change to Florida politics,” said Darryl Paulson, Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg and early supporter of Amendment 4. “You can only guess what some of the long-term aspects will be.”

In the past, Paulson said, the issue was unfortunately framed in partisan terms.

“Many Republicans opposed it because they were concerned Democrats would benefit, and many Democrats supported it because they believed Democrats would benefit,” he said. “But my argument was it ought to be supported by Floridians because simply it was the right thing to do.”

“I think a lot of people look at it as a negative for the Republican Party, but I think it will be a benefit to the Republican Party, because it is going to focus them to reach out and appeal to segments of the electorate that they have completely ignored in the past,” said Paulson, who once served as a fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Republicans certainly need to do much better reaching out to minority populations who have been disproportionately affected by this policy.”

Paulson also cautions those who think this would add a million Democrats to the voter rolls. An estimated 40 percent of former felons still owe restitution, he said, and another large percentage will probably not register for a variety of reasons. Democrats may only come out with tens of thousands of new voters, he said.

The amendment was also the focus of a closely-watched court battle between several former felons and Gov. Rick Scott.

Currently, former felons must petition the state clemency board – made up of the governor and cabinet — to restore their voting rights. But for the last seven years, Scott has routinely denied restoring voting rights to former felons.

He’s approved about 10 percent of cases that came to the clemency board, according to statistics compiled by the Florida Commission on Offender Review. Scott also rolled back the automatic restoration of rights for nonviolent crimes passed by his predecessor, Charlie Crist, and instituted a five- or seven-year waiting period (depending on the crime) for all former felons before they can formally apply for restoration of their civil rights.

In March 2017, frustrated by the cumbersome clemency process, seven former felons filed a class action lawsuit alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

In February, a federal judge ruled Florida’s clemency process is arbitrary and unconstitutional, and ordered the state to scrap it for a new scheme. The state appealed and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in July.

But Jon Sherman, senior counsel for Fair Elections Center, who represents the former felon plaintiffs, said he believes the case is now moot.

“The ballot initiative is a historic victory for democracy in Florida,” he added.

A Florida Department of State spokesperson could not comment on the appeal or any specifics on implementing Amendment 4.

The amendment takes effect on Jan. 8. Still, some supporters worry about how state officials will implement the measure.

Mark Schlakman, senior program director for the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, said the incoming governor or legislature could attempt to burden potential voters with additional procedures, as they have with other amendments.

“It’s not necessarily the case that the legislature has a role, but the legislature could attempt to insert itself,” he said. “Would the courts weigh in if the executive branch attempted to surround the amendment with some arguably unnecessary process?”

Paulson also has concerns, but hopes the clear language in the amendment prevents any delays.

“They run a high risk when they do that,” he said. “When you have two-thirds of people voting in support of something and you defy the will of the electorate, you potentially risk the backlash of the electorate, who say ‘hey, if you are not going to follow the will of the people, we’ll find someone else who will.'”

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