Fight brews over felons’ voting rights in Florida

ORLANDO, Fla. – When Florida voters approved a sweeping ballot initiative last month to restore the voting rights of some felons, advocates rejoiced in the expectation that more than a million people would soon have the chance to add their names to the voter rolls.

Now, a fight is brewing between the broad coalition of civil and voting rights groups that backed the measure and some state and local officials who argue that lawmakers must shape its implementation given the wide-ranging nature of the initiative.

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That has raised concerns among some of the measure’s supporters that any action by opponents could lead to legislation that lingers in the state Capitol, months after they expected it to begin.

The growing uncertainty over how — and when — the measure, known as Amendment 4, will take effect has stirred confusion among county election officials and raised the prospect of a bitter legal dispute over the voting rights of roughly 1.4 million people convicted of felonies.

Florida’s laws barring those with felony records from voting were among the toughest in the country.

Along with Kentucky and Iowa, it was among three states that permanently revoked felons’ access to the ballot box. Those who hoped to have their voting rights restored were required to plead their case to the state’s Executive Clemency Board — a panel made up of the governor and his Cabinet.

But that process was dealt a fatal blow in November, when nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which is intended to reinstate the voting rights of most felons who have served out their sentences. The measure carves out exceptions for those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes.

Melba Pearson, the interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, said her organization is gearing up to file a lawsuit if former felons who qualify to register to vote under Amendment 4 are turned away on Jan. 8, when the law is expected to take effect.

“At the end of the day, you don’t get to undo election results because you don’t like the outcome,” Pearson said in an interview. “That is completely contrary to a democratic government. You have to respect the will of the people regardless of whether you agree with the results.”

The ACLU of Florida and other advocates for the amendment argue that it was intended to enter into force without any action from the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.

But Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner (R) said earlier this month that he believes that state lawmakers should provide guidance on how election officials should proceed with Amendment 4.

That argument was echoed by Gov.-elect Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGillum launches voter-registration campaign Republicans need solutions on environment too Republicans up for reelection fear daylight with Trump MORE (R), who told The Palm Beach Post in an interview last week that the amendment should not take effect until state lawmakers pass “implementing language” when they reconvene in March for a 60-day session.

It’s not clear what that language would look like. But some state officials and lawmakers have raised questions about how election workers will evaluate voter eligibility and whether they have completed the terms of their sentences.

“They’re going to be able to do that in March,” said DeSantis, who opposed Amendment 4. Despite that, he said lawmakers are duty-bound to implement it.

“There’s no way you can go through this session without implementing it,” DeSantis told the newspaper.

The Florida Division of Elections, which falls under the Florida Department of State, told county supervisors of elections earlier this month that it had put a temporary hold on sending voters’ criminal records to county elections offices, effectively pausing the process by which supervisors remove eligible voters from the rolls.

Since then, supervisors have not received any written guidance from the state on how to handle cases that fall under Amendment 4, said Bill Cowles, the supervisor of elections in Orange County.

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Cowles blamed the uncertainty surrounding the measure in part on a “changing of the guard” in Tallahassee. DeSantis has not yet been sworn into office, nor has he tapped a new secretary of state to replace Detzner.

Cowles said his office will begin allowing those with felony convictions to fill out voter registration forms on Jan. 8. But the lack of guidance from Tallahassee raises the possibility that the state’s 67 supervisors of elections will interpret the amendment’s provisions differently.

“It does put us in an awkward situation,” Cowles said. “But we’re going to tell the potential voter: if you believe that ... you meet the requirements under the amendment, then come register.”

Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, said in an email that the agency would “abide by any future direction from the Executive Clemency Board or the Florida Legislature regarding necessary action or implementing legislation to ensure full compliance with the law.”

Richard Harrison, a Tampa-based attorney and former executive director of Florida for Sensible Voting Rights Policy, which opposed Amendment 4, said Wednesday that he disagrees with the notion that the measure needs legislative action to take effect.

Harrison said that the current voter registration form, which asks new voters whether they are convicted felons and, if so, whether they have had their rights restored, is sufficient to implement the amendment.

If the legislature gets involved, it would run the risk of prolonged legislative standstill that could leave the issue unresolved for months, he noted.

“What if the legislature doesn’t come up with something they can pass? They go out of session and there’s no law,” he said. “That’s going to be the real fiasco.

“It seems to be a solution in search of a problem. I don’t understand why we’re having the conversation, but we’re having it.”

While the amendment effectively restores the voting rights of 1.4 million people with felony convictions in Florida, advocates for the measure acknowledged that it is unlikely all of them will register to vote or cast ballots.

Still, adding more than 1 million people to the voter rolls could have an immense — and unknown — impact in a state known for razor-thin electoral margins.

In November’s midterm elections, for example, DeSantis edged out Democrat Andrew Gillum by fewer than 33,000 votes. In the race for Senate, incumbent Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonEx-House Intel chair: Intel panel is wrong forum to investigate Trump's finances The Hill's Morning Report - Trump budget reignites border security fight 2020 party politics in Puerto Rico MORE (D) fell to Florida’s outgoing Republican governor, Rick Scott, by just 10,000 votes.

And there is little information on the political leanings of those who will regain the right to vote under Amendment 4. 

Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoFlorida lawmakers pitch bipartisan Venezuela amendment for Dream Act Hillicon Valley: Google takes heat at privacy hearing | 2020 Dems to debate 'monopoly power' | GOP rips net neutrality bill | Warren throws down gauntlet over big tech | New scrutiny for Trump over AT&T merger GOP pushes back on net neutrality bill at testy hearing MORE (D-Fla.) said that Republican state lawmakers would likely “use their position to try to stifle” the measure.

He compared the current dispute surrounding the measure to a series of prolonged legal battles over the legislature’s implementation of a successful 2016 ballot initiative that broadly legalized medical marijuana. Advocates for that measure argued that state lawmakers sought to limit its intent by placing unnecessary regulations on the industry.

Soto, a former Florida state legislator, said that Democrats in Washington would get involved in the dispute, if necessary, either using legislation or by taking the matter to the Justice Department.   

“The amendment is clear on its face. It doesn’t require further action from the [state] legislature,” Soto said. “That’s not only my political opinion, but my legal opinion.

“The right to vote is a federal matter. It’s a federal right under the Constitution and certainly this would be something we would pursue legislatively or take it to the Justice Department.”

Florida House Speaker José Oliva (R) has rejected the suggestion that state lawmakers could slow-walk the amendment’s implementation and said that he wants to ensure that the measure is properly enacted.

Oliva’s office did not respond to The Hill’s requests for comment.

Some advocates for the measure flat out rejected the suggestion that lawmakers should have a say in how it is carried out. Among them was Desmond Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), one of the groups that helped draft Amendment 4.

“We have worked too hard and we’ve waited too long to get the right to vote back to just give it up to anyone,” Meade said.

Meade said the FRRC stood ready to take legal action if any issues regarding the amendment’s implementation emerged. In the meantime, he said, his group will continue to encourage felons to register to vote.

“If anybody wants to do anything other than what the constitution says, you know what they do? Do the same thing that we did,” Meade said, referring to the campaign to pass the measure. “Change the constitution.”