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Unanswered Amendment 4 questions frustrate felon voting rights advocates

At a panel discussion Saturday, activists celebrated the new law extending voting rights to ex-felons. But irritation simmered under the surface.
Attendees listen to an Amendment 4 panel discussion at the Enoch D. Davis Recreation Center featuring, from left: League of Women Voters St. Petersburg Chapter board member Stephanie Owens, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Political Director Neil Volz, ACLU Florida Political Director Kirk Bailey, Pinellas County Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition member Melanie Paine and Pinellas Deputy Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus.
Published Jan. 26

ST. PETERSBURG — More than two weeks after Amendment 4 expanded voting rights to more than a million ex-felons in Florida, nagging questions over details persist. And as state officials wait on lawmakers for answers, advocates are getting frustrated.

Some 45 people turned out for a panel discussion Saturday where activists celebrated the landmark law. But irritation simmered under the surface, rising when they couldn't provide concrete answers to questions about eligibility and penalties.

The amendment, passed in November's general election, allows citizens who aren't convicted murderers or sex offenders to register to vote as soon as they complete their sentences. Previously, a felony conviction meant lifetime disenfranchisement unless a person overcame long odds with the state's clemency board.

Now the problem is this question: what constitutes a murder conviction? Differences between charges have led lawmakers to begin debating which crimes outlined in the state's homicide statute should exclude ex-felons from voting — to the chagrin of the law's advocates.

"I understand why folks have questions. But the answer to those questions are not particularly difficult," Kirk Bailey, Florida political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said at the discussion hosted by the South St. Petersburg Democratic Club.

The state agency tasked with denying ineligible voters disagrees.

Last week, Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews said her office wants the Legislature to clearly define which violations count as murder. Matthews mentioned attempted murder and partial birth abortion as potentially contested laws.

"I don't believe we are comfortable defining that universe,'' Matthews said.

To Bailey, that process is "backwards." In his view, the Division of Elections should decide the implementation details and if legislators want to make changes, they can do so later.

"Frankly, I think that the state agencies have a responsibility to say, 'This is what we think the answer is, based on our expertise and experience,' " he said.

The legislative session begins March 5 — weeks after the deadline to register for local elections in Tampa and Jacksonville.

Meanwhile, local elections supervisors are encouraging anyone who is sure they are eligible to register. One of the first to do so in Pinellas County was Melanie Paine, who works with the Pinellas County Ex-offender Re-entry Coalition and said Saturday she got her voting card within days.

But it's hard to assure applicants they're eligible when the state isn't deciding on specific cases. Florida hasn't checked any applicants' felony status since Jan. 6, two days before the amendment took effect.

"Literally everything has stopped when it comes to this one issue," said Julie Marcus, Pinellas County deputy supervisor of elections.

It's possible, then, that voters have been approved and registered despite not being eligible, and the state could ask county supervisors to remove them later.

Asked if the state's practice worried her, Marcus said, "We feel it is very important to keep the voter registration file as accurate and current as possible. You reduce confusion, and you also maintain the integrity of the voting process."

Adding to the stakes is a law that could charge someone who lies on a voter form with a third-degree felony. Bailey noted that the Miami Dade State Attorney's Office says it won't prosecute anyone who accidentally claims they're eligible. He said worried people in the rest of the state should ask their local state attorneys to make the same promise.

Local activists are weighing that risk with the desire to register people as soon as possible.

"We want to do it now and not wait until the 2020 elections," said Jabar Edmond, a Service Employees International Union Florida organizer who campaigned for the ballot measure. Waiting might look like they're only trying to turn out votes for a specific candidate rather than encouraging participation overall, he said.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Contact Langston Taylor at 727-893-8659 or ltaylor@tampabay.com. Follow @langstonitaylor.

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