Restoration of voting rights by felons marks shift in Florida

More than 1 million Floridians with felony convictions regained the right to vote on Tuesday, setting in motion a process that carries the potential to reshape elections in the country’s largest and most unpredictable battleground state.

The mass re-enfranchisement of felons who have completed their sentences is the result of Amendment 4, a ballot initiative approved by nearly 65 percent of Florida voters in November that ends a longtime policy requiring felons to petition the state clemency board for their voting rights to be restored.

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The move expands the pool of eligible voters in Florida by roughly 1.4 million people — a significant number in a state where elections are often decided by fewer than 100,000 votes — setting off a scramble to register eligible felons. 

“We got the amendment passed so now we actually have to get people registered to vote,” Rep. Charlie CristCharles (Charlie) Joseph CristThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump's new controversy Florida Rep. Charlie Crist endorses Biden Pelosi says she'll no longer address anything Barr says MORE (D-Fla.), a former governor who in 2007 helped streamline the clemency process, said in an interview Tuesday.

Exactly which party stands to benefit the most from the new pool of eligible voters remains uncertain, according to multiple experts and activists. It’s also unclear just how many felons will actually register to vote.

Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections overwhelmingly endorsed Amendment 4, even making it a key part of their campaigns. Republicans, including Sen. Rick Scott, largely opposed it.

But even if a fraction of those affected by Amendment 4, which doesn’t include felons convicted of murder or sex crimes, cast ballots in the next election, it could have immense political impacts, said Mac Stipanovich, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist.

“When you have a number of potential voters as large as that, the potential for change in Florida is theoretically enormous,” Stipanovich said. “We’re a state where statewide elections, where millions of votes are cast, are decided by a few thousand votes.”

While there is little information on the political affiliations of felons, Stipanovich said that many likely leaned Democratic.

But, he added, getting those people to register to vote, let alone cast a ballot, is likely to prove difficult, because felons as a whole tend to be disproportionately undereducated and economically disadvantaged — characteristics often associated with lower voter turnout.

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Still, he said, Democrats “have every right to be hopeful.”

“If someone gave you a treasure map with a lot of X’s on it and one was a gold mine, you’d be pretty excited,” Stipanovich said.

The surge in newly eligible voters comes just two months after two Democrats were defeated by Republicans in razor-thin elections.

Former Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonMedia and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity Al Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Democrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 MORE (D) lost his reelection bid to Scott by just more than 10,000 votes, while Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) fell to his Republican opponent, former Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisClarence Thomas, Joe Manchin, Rudy Giuliani among guests at second state visit under Trump Trump parts ways with key Florida adviser: report Death and destruction: A timeline of Hurricane Dorian MORE, by fewer than 33,000 in the governor’s race.

It also means that thousands of new voters could be added to the rolls ahead of the highly anticipated 2020 presidential election, when Florida is expected to again play a crucial role in determining whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE will get a second term in the White House.

Trump carried Florida in 2016 by roughly 100,000 votes — about 1 percent of ballots cast.

“It doesn’t take a lot to change the landscape in Florida,” Stipanovich said.

Even as newly eligible voters registered with county election offices on Tuesday, questions remained about the enactment of Amendment 4.

Some state officials, including DeSantis, have insisted that state lawmakers need to weigh in on how supervisors of elections should evaluate voter eligibility and whether felons have completed the terms of their sentences.

“Decisions like these need to be made,” said Mark Schlackman, the senior program director for the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. “It doesn’t need to take an inordinate amount of time, but clearly there are a number of moving parts here.”

“What would the coordination be between the state division of elections and the local elections supervisors? How do they verify completion of sentence?”

But advocates for restoring felons’ voting rights argue that the amendment was authored to be self-executing and requires no additional action from the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.

Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to convene for the new legislative session until March. If state officials insist on receiving guidance from lawmakers before processing voter registrations, that timeline could clash with the start of municipal elections in Florida in February.

Among those who registered on Tuesday was Desmond Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which helped author Amendment 4. Meade said he was joined by his family at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office as he filled out his voter registration form.

“I was the first in line this morning,” he said. “My daughter helped me fill out the form, and we turned it in together.”

Meade, who spent years in prison for drug- and firearm-related convictions, said he registered as an independent because he wanted to send “a message to our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that they need to earn my vote.”

He said he is planning to vote in Orange County’s municipal elections later this year. It will be his first time in more than 25 years to cast a ballot, he said.

“It’s going to be a completion of my journey,” Meade said.