Amendment 4 in Florida passed: What’s next for convicted felons and their voting rights?

There are fears that Republican state officials could drag their feet in implementing a voter-mandated overhaul of the constitution that might hurt GOP candidates. And it’s unclear how much the amendment’s passage will sway Florida’s razor-thin elections.
People gather around the Ben & Jerry’s “Yes on 4” truck as they learn about Amendment 4 and eat free ice cream at Charles Hadley Park in Miami in October. Amendment 4, asked voters to restore the voting rights of people with past felony convictions.
Wilfredo Lee AP
People gather around the Ben & Jerry’s “Yes on 4” truck as they learn about Amendment 4 and eat free ice cream at Charles Hadley Park in Miami in October. Amendment 4, asked voters to restore the voting rights of people with past felony convictions. Wilfredo Lee AP
Published Nov. 8, 2018|Updated Nov. 8, 2018

Marquis McKenzie knows what he wants to do next: register to vote.

A convicted felon since the age of 16 because of a robbery he committed in 2006, McKenzie has never been able to cast a ballot. Under Florida's constitution, felons could not vote without seeking approval from the governor and certain cabinet officials.

But on Tuesday Floridians overwhelmingly voted in favor of an amendment that automatically restores voting rights to most felons who have completed their sentences, McKenzie among them. As many as 1.2 million Floridians convicted of felonies are expected to become eligible to vote again.

"I'm going to vote until the day I kick the bucket over," said McKenzie, 28, an Orlando-area resident who runs a janitorial business and organized voters in support of Amendment 4.

So what happens now? It's difficult to separate the amendment from politics. Those convicted of felonies in Florida are more likely to be Democrats. Even so, more than 64 percent of Florida voters cast their ballots in favor of Amendment 4. (Amendments require 60 percent to pass.) The measure garnered the most votes in heavily Democratic counties but also won support in redder areas, despite the opposition of Republican governor-elect Ron DeSantis.

Still, there are fears that Republican state officials could drag their feet in implementing a voter-mandated overhaul of the constitution that might hurt GOP candidates. And it's unclear how much the amendment's passage will sway Florida's razor-thin elections.

First things first: The amendment will take effect on Jan. 8, according to the state constitution.

That means convicted felons who have completed their sentences should be able to walk into their county elections office and register to vote starting on that day, said Howard Simon, retiring executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The amendment does not apply to those convicted of murder or sex crimes.

"People should just go register and vote," said Simon, who helped craft the ballot language. "This is not ambiguous."

And he said the amendment makes clear that felons do not need to provide proof to election officials that they've successfully finished their sentences.

Under the amendment, finishing a sentence includes completing parole or probation and paying all court-ordered restitution, if necessary.

But the devil is always in the details — and with so many Floridians eligible to have their rights restored, the details matter.

For instance, Simon said the ACLU of Florida would oppose attempts by the state to block felons from registering because they had not paid fees imposed by local clerks of court.

"The real question is implementation," said Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.
Paulson said the process ought to be running smoothly well before the 2020 presidential election, if the will of voters is to be satisfied.

"You don't want to come up to 2020 and find that only a few thousand people have been able to register," he said.

Here's how people in Florida lose the right to vote: After a registered voter has been convicted of a felony, the courts or law enforcement agencies will alert the Florida Division of Elections. Then state elections officials will notify county elections supervisors, who will remove the voter from the rolls.

Now, with the passage of Amendment 4, various state agencies will have to share data to make sure election officials know which felons have completed their sentences and should have their rights restored. That bureaucracy could involve Florida's Department of State, which manages the elections division; the Florida Department of Corrections; the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; county elections supervisors and the state court system.

"It will take some thinking and cooperation among government agencies in Florida," said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that worked for Amendment 4's passage.

Browne Dianis said her group and others will monitor if election officials are asking voters to provide paperwork proving they've completed their sentences. Doing so, she said, could effectively re-disenfranchise voters.

"The burden shouldn't be on the voter to prove they are eligible," she said. "It should be on state and local governments. It's really a matter of can the data systems talk to each other?"

Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for the Department of State, did not answer specific questions about how Florida will handle implementation of the amendment. Among the unanswered questions: If and how the state will change question two on the voter registration form, which currently asks voters to affirm that "I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored."

"I will share more information as it becomes available," Revell wrote in an email Wednesday.

But if state officials act slowly or set up what are perceived as roadblocks to delay registration, Simon said the ACLU of Florida will sue.

"I want to presume the Legislature and the newly elected governor are going to respect the clear wishes of the people," he said. "And that is to automatically restore the rights of voters."

Long road back

Civil rights advocates have criticized Florida's current system of voting rights restoration for years.

But they say the situation has deteriorated under Gov. Rick Scott's administration. Under Scott, felons have had to wait five years after completing their sentences before applying to have their voting rights restored. Then their cases were heard before a panel made up of the governor, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture and chief financial officer.

That panel restored voting rights to far fewer felons than the administrations of previous governors Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush. A Palm Beach Post investigation also showed that Scott's procedures favored whites over blacks, and Republicans over Democrats.

Scholars have debated just how big the impact of Amendment 4 would be on elections in Florida.

Earlier this month, a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald analysis found that 52 percent of people who lost their voting rights last year were registered Democrats and 33 percent had no party affiliation. Just 14 percent belonged to the GOP.

But experts point out that convicted felons often struggle to reintegrate into society after being released, and face poverty and unemployment on the outside. That puts them into a category of people who don't register at the same frequency as others, much less actually cast ballots.

The website Vox cited research showing that if all ex-felons in Florida had been eligible to vote in the 2016 election, Democrats might have netted 48,000 votes, with another 40,000 independent votes capable of breaking for either party. Even if all the independents voted Democratic, that wouldn't have been enough for Hillary Clinton to beat Donald Trump, who won by a margin of 112,911 votes in Florida two years ago.

Still, Amendment 4 will undoubtedly have an impact on Florida's often excruciatingly tight elections. Recounts are possible both in the races for Florida governor and U.S. Senate.

In the governor's race, DeSantis was ahead of Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat who supported Amendment 4, by 51,000 votes, out of more than eight million cast. That's close to the .5 percentage margin point that could trigger an automatic machine recount under Florida law.

(DeSantis, a former federal prosecutor, has said that felons who have completed their sentences may not yet have paid back their debts to society. "An appallingly high percentage of people who get out of prison as convicted felons re-offend," he said at an October debate.)

Meanwhile, the Senate race between Scott and Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson is within the recount margin. A recount is widely expected. Nelson trails Scott by a little more than 30,000 votes.

Election results showed widespread support for the amendment across Florida. Not a single one of the state's 10 media markets voted to reject it.

While margins were closer in Republican strongholds in the Panhandle and the Pensacola and Naples/Fort Myers regions, the "yes" votes still won. And in urban areas like Miami, Orlando and Tampa, the margins in favor were sometimes two to one.

For Roderick Kemp, Tuesday was as much personal as political.

In 2016, his voting rights were stripped for a drug conviction 30 years earlier. Kemp, a politically active African American who lives in Fort Lauderdale, was shocked. Then he was shocked again when his rights were abruptly restored after the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting produced a documentary about his case.

"I didn't feel like a whole citizen or a whole person after my rights had been taken away," Kemp said. "I felt like my voice was gone."

On Election Day, he voted "yes" on Amendment 4.

"I want all my fellow Floridians to have their rights too," Kemp said. "I just hope the amendment will be enforced."

— This story was written by Nicholas Nehamas