Florida’s new felon voters didn’t decide Tuesday’s election. Advocates are happy about that.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition says that it estimates 50,000 people with felony convictions voted in the general election.
Supporters of restoring Florida felons' voting rights march to an early voting precinct, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition led marches to the polls in dozens of Florida counties.
Supporters of restoring Florida felons' voting rights march to an early voting precinct, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition led marches to the polls in dozens of Florida counties. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | AP ]
Published Nov. 6, 2020|Updated Nov. 6, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Heading into Tuesday, many were bracing for a razor-thin election in Florida like the ones in 2018 and 2000.

And if that were the case, some feared that the eligibility of Florida’s newly enfranchised felons could be called into question. Thousands could have cast votes despite owing court fees and fines; a controversial 2019 law passed by GOP lawmakers required that those fees and fines had to be paid first.

Of course, neither scenario happened. President Donald Trump won the state by more than 370,000 votes, or 3.4 percentage points — a blowout by Florida standards.

And the people who helped register felons, also called “returning citizens,” are feeling relieved.

“We’re happy that the returning citizen experience this election cycle was one of celebration and not one filled with acrimony and partisanship,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, whose voting rights were also restored last year.

Volz and the coalition were instrumental in helping pass a 2018 ballot measure known as Amendment 4, which overturned the state’s 150-year-old ban on voting for people with felony convictions. Florida was the last large state to disenfranchise people with felony convictions, and its passage was celebrated as the nation’s greatest expansion of voting rights in decades.

Since Amendment 4 passed in November 2018, 80,000 people with felony convictions have registered to vote, according to the coalition.

Of those people, the group estimates that 50,000 voted in the general election, a turnout rate just over 62 percent. That would be much higher than felon turnout rates in the past. The state is not expected to release public data on who voted until next month.

Many of those 50,000 were voting in a general election for the first time in their lives, Volz said.

“Our folks were willing to run through a brick wall to vote,” he said. “We could feel that excitement and see that excitement.”

The overall number of people with felony convictions who registered to vote was much lower than what the coalition’s leader, Desmond Meade, was hoping for. When Amendment 4 passed, he was hoping for between 10 and 20 percent of the estimated 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions to register to vote.

A investigation by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald and ProPublica found that a law signed last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis tamped down those expectations. Amendment 4 restored the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms” of their sentence, but “all terms” were never defined.

DeSantis and GOP lawmakers defined it to require felons pay off all court fees, fines, and restitution to victims before voting, even though an estimated 80 percent of people with felony convictions can’t afford to ever pay off those debts or pay them off in monthly installments.

The law sparked more than a year of federal litigation, and while the lawsuit wound its way through the courts, the state did not remove felons from the rolls who owed court debts. An analysis by a Georgetown Law professor found that as many as 78 percent of people with felony convictions on the rolls owed court fees or fines.

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

If the election was close, some feared that either party might try to invalidate the votes of felons who owed court debts. That has happened in previous elections in Florida, including in 2016, when the Putnam County sheriff’s race was challenged after felons were found to have voted. A judge dismissed the challenge.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the Division of Elections, said the state is moving ahead on its plan to remove ineligible felons from the rolls, but none of the removals were expected before Election Day.

Previous studies of voter turnout rates among people with felony convictions have found that only about 10 percent who are registered actually vote. A study by Harvard doctoral candidate Michael Morse found that just 11 percent of the 150,000 people who had their voting rights restored by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist cast ballots in the 2016 general election, for example.

If the coalition’s estimate that about 62 percent of felons voted turns out to be true, it would not be that surprising, said Chris Uggen, a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota and one of the few people who has studied voter participation among people with felony convictions.

“I would not be surprised if this is quite a bit higher than a state like Minnesota, where there hasn’t been any targeted outreach,” he said.

In Florida, several groups, including the League of Women Voters, tried to contact tens of thousands of people with felony convictions they believed didn’t owe any court debts. They made phone calls, sent text messages, and mailed personalized postcards.

Uggen also credited the Rights Restoration Coalition for generating a national discussion about voting rights and helping break down stigmas about people with felony convictions.

“I think the rights restoration groups in Florida can really feel good about the work they’ve done,” he said. “It’s been a powerful movement and a powerful reform effort.”

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

ELECTION RESULTS — FLORIDA AND TAMPA BAY: See all races, statewide and in Hillsborough, Pinellas and other Tampa Bay counties.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the elections in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription. Or click here to make a donation to the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund.