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What happened to Florida’s Amendment 4? Five takeaways from our investigation

The number of new voters from Amendment 4 is small. The number who vote will be even smaller, but they could still affect the outcome of next month’s election.

TALLAHASSEE — A few months ago, we and ProPublica wanted to answer a question: How many people with felony convictions have registered to vote under Amendment 4?

Passed by nearly two-thirds of voters in 2018, the amendment was supposed to be America’s greatest expansion of civil rights in decades, allowing an estimated 1.4 million to vote. Some speculated it could swing Florida’s election in favor of Democrats.

We found that hasn’t happened. At all.

You can read the full investigation here. Here are 5 things we learned while reporting this story:

1. Few people with felony convictions have joined the rolls since Amendment 4 took effect in 2019.

We found at least 31,400 have joined the rolls — far below what organizers had hoped for in 2018, which was between 140,000 and 280,000 new voters by now. Why? Gov. Ron DeSantis' requirement that felons pay fines and fees before voting is a deterrent. And felons who fear they might be ineligible have avoided risking registering, experts said.

2. More have registered as Democrats, but only because more Black people with felony convictions have registered.

Florida’s felon voting law was created in 1868 for one reason: to keep Black men from voting. So it’s not a surprise that Black felons benefited more from Amendment 4. In Gadsden County, the only majority-Black county in the state, felons made up at least one in every five new voters since January 2019. Overall, about half of the 31,400 we found are Black, and 80 percent of them registered as Democrats.

Overall, half are Democrats. But white and Black felons registered with their parties at nearly the same rate as Black and white non-felons — except that white felons were slightly more likely to register as Republicans.

3. Even fewer are going to vote.

That’s because we found that as many as 78 percent of people with felony convictions on the rolls might be ineligible to vote because they owe court fees, fines or restitution to victims. We spoke to several of them who said they were planning on staying home next month. If they do vote, they risk being charged with a felony for voting when they know they’re ineligible.

4. The Secretary of State hasn’t removed anyone from the rolls for owing court debts.

And she likely won’t before the election. Although it’s likely thousands, or tens of thousands, of felons on the rolls are ineligible to vote, Secretary of State Laurel Lee said she hasn’t had the time or resources to remove them. She also made a decision to wait to remove people until after the most recent court case on DeSantis' law on felon voting. That happened last month — too late for the state to start removing people, she said.

5. The situation leaves felons in doubt — and might challenge the election results.

Ineligible voters are not supposed to vote. But because they’re on the rolls, there is nothing stopping them from voting. The state has done almost no direct outreach to felons who might be ineligible. One felon said he was planning to vote until a reporter informed him his outstanding fines and fees made him ineligible.

Six political observers, advocates, lawmakers and lawyers told us that if enough ineligible felons vote next month, it could be used by either side to challenge the election results.

“If there is a wide swath of felons on the rolls who are ineligible to vote, that is likely to be something that is challenged,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-Petersburg, said.

You can read our complete investigation here.