Despite hedging from Florida's Republican leaders, an amendment that allows eligible former felons to register to vote will go into effect on Tuesday, Tampa Bay elections officials say.
Considered to be one of the most significant voting rights acts in the state's history, Amendment 4 passed last year with 64 percent of the vote. Experts believe that the pool of those whose voting rights have been restored is at least 1.2 million people. That would mean more than 152,000 in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of precinct demographic data.
Tampa Bay's elections supervisors each said that, beginning Tuesday, they won't hesitate to implement Amendment 4 and will register those who, under the law, have regained their right to vote.
- “By law, the amendment goes into effect Jan. 8, and the language was very clear that it restores voting rights to all who have completed their terms of sentence, except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses,” said Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.
- “Constitutional Amendment Number 4 is effective January 8, 2019. The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections will accept voter registration applications from anyone who believes they are eligible to register to vote,” echoed Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark.
- “Convicted felons who have completed their sentence, including parole and probation, are eligible and will have their rights automatically restored on January 8, 2019,” said Hernando Supervisor of Election Shirley Anderson in a statement.
- Of all the amendments passed in November, Pasco Supervisor Brian Corley said, “regardless of how one felt, Amendment 4 was crystal clear to voters.”
Until now, Florida was the largest state to not automatically restore voting rights to most felons who had served their sentences. Felons who wanted to vote had to apply for restoration with the state's clemency board, made up of the governor and the three Cabinet members. But the process was a long shot. The board has a backlog of more than 10,000 applications, meets just once every three months — and averages 400 voting rights restored a year.
That elections supervisors say they will implement Amendment 4 helps dispel some of the confusion that arose last month, when they met with state officials. At the time, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the new chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, said the amendment "may or may not" need legislative action for implementation.
Later in December, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis told the Palm Beach Post the law should be put on hold until the Legislature passes "implementing language."
Such language could still come later. But it's not mandatory to register. The Florida Constitution spells out clearly when any new amendment takes effect: the first Tuesday after the first Monday in January:
The law is already listed on the state's web site.
Howard Simon, the former executive director of American Civil Liberties Union Florida, compared the completion of a sentence to other voter criteria, such as being an American citizen. Prospective voters don't need to bring their passport or birth certificate to register, he said.
"People have a right to register to vote if they truthfully affirm the information they provide on the voter registration form." The onus is then on the government to find and flag any disqualifying factors, he said.
Registration forms will continue to force applicants to check a box asserting "I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored." It doesn't ask how the right was restored, whether by the clemency board or by the upcoming rule change.
Corley, in Pasco, foresees problems with voters knowing for sure whether they've completed their term, and supervisors will continue to coordinate with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to check.
"Willfully" lying on a voter form could be a third-degree felony, he pointed out. For that reason, officials warn that Floridians should be sure they're eligible before they register.
"According to the same processes we follow now," said Kramer, the Hillsborough spokeswoman, "if the state presents us with evidence that someone is not eligible to vote, then we contact the voter, and if the voter can't give us evidence they are eligible to vote, then they will become an ineligible voter."
Only 11 other states still restrict voting rights after a person completes their sentence.
Hillsborough County is under immediate pressure because Tampa holds its city elections on March 5 (the same day the Florida Legislature returns to session). Its deadline to register to vote is February 4, less than a month away.
That pressure led the City Council to send a letter to DeSantis and the Cabinet, asking the law go into effect "now."
The letter, drafted by council member Luis Viera and signed by Chairman Frank Reddick, said Florida has "a shameful history of voting rights and civil rights" and called the restoration of the right to vote a "pivotal bi-partisan moral issue."
"You're going to have people that have the right to vote according to the clear law of the land," Viera said this week. "My opinion is that's something that should happen immediately."
The Times analyzed race and gender data in more than 5,600 precincts in order to estimate where the 1.2 million Floridians affected by Amendment 4 live.
In 2018, the Times found that registered voters taken off the rolls for a felony conviction skewed black and male. Not surprisingly, the precincts where they lived tended to be heavily-black. They also had relatively fewer registered black and Hispanic men than women (indicating men were, for some reason or another, missing from the voter rolls).
Several Hillsborough precincts, especially in Downtown and East Tampa, fit that description. Mayoral candidates are campaigning as if the road to City Hall runs right through them.
There were more than 257,000 registered voters in Tampa in December, according to state records. More than 30,000 felons will be newly allowed to register, based on the Times model.