Column: Unless Florida learns from Alabama’s mistakes, voting rights restoration may go unrealized

A commitment to voter education from election officials is needed to make Amendment 4 — restoration of ex-felons’ right to vote — a reality in Florida.
Mary Thomas didn’t realize that a 2017 change in Alabama law had given her back the right to vote. [Photo courtesy of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice]
Mary Thomas didn’t realize that a 2017 change in Alabama law had given her back the right to vote. [Photo courtesy of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice]
Published December 14 2018
Updated December 14 2018

Mary Thomas of Tuscaloosa, Ala., remembers the marches. She remembers the struggle. Now 75, she voted “from the day they said black folks could vote” till the day she pled guilty in a Tuscaloosa courthouse in May 2011 to possession of marijuana. Her life turned upside down: she lost her driver’s license and incurred thousands of dollars in court costs, probation fees and fines. She also lost her right to vote. A 2017 change in Alabama state law restored Ms. Thomas’ rights, but no one told her the good news.

Ms. Thomas’ story — and the data showing how difficult it has been to communicate the message that felony convictions do not necessarily deny you the right to vote — is a cautionary tale for voting rights restoration advocates in Florida. Floridians should celebrate the overwhelming support that led to the passage of Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to 1.4 million Floridians. Yet the fight for equal access to the ballot is just beginning. With voting rights, voter knowledge and empowerment are everything. And as of now, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner is dragging his feet on enforcement rather than taking proactive steps to advertise Amendment 4’s impact.

We’ve seen this story before, although on a smaller stage, in Alabama. Alabama’s secretary of state — who is the chief officer of voting and elections in the state — has repeatedly said he is not interested in reaching out to voters who are newly eligible to vote under the 2017 change in law. “I’m not going to spend state resources dedicate(ed) to notifying a small percentage of individuals who at some point in the past may have believed for whatever reason they were disenfranchised,” he told the press.

The results of this indifference are clear in the data. The 2017 change had the potential to restore the rights of approximately 76,000 people. But a new study conducted by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice found that 71.7 percent of Alabamians surveyed who were previously disenfranchised because of a felony conviction had not heard about a change in law that restored their right to vote. That leaves tens of thousands of eligible Alabama voters in the dark about their newly restored rights.

Without state action in Alabama, restoring voting rights has been left to grassroots efforts led by an assortment of groups. Out of necessity, powerful work has been done by non-profits and grassroots volunteers determined to fill the void and see justice done. Indeed, of those in Alabama who had heard that the law changed, only 4.9 percent had learned about it from an employee of the state government. But the responsibility for voter education on basic questions of eligibility should lie with the state, which can most effectively reach all voters.

This fall, nearly 65 percent of Florida voters cast their ballots for second chances. Amendment 4 is the largest expansion of the franchise in generations. But those citizens will still have to learn about the new law and register to vote before they can cast a ballot. Amendment 4 is plain and doesn’t require “implementing” legislation, which could only muddy the waters. But it does require extensive voter education and election official training to ensure a meaningful transition to a more expansive electorate. These are tasks that fall squarely under the responsibility of the Florida Secretary of State. Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis should appoint a secretary of state with a clear, committed vision for educating voters and election officials on Amendment 4. Otherwise, the will of Florida voters may go unfulfilled.

Dana Sweeney is an organizer for the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice and a Puffin Democracy Fellow for the Andrew Goodman Foundation. Leah Nelson is a researcher for the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. Blair Bowie is a Skadden Foundation Fellow and law clerk at the Campaign Legal Center.

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