Floridians on Tuesday overthrew a relic of disenfranchisement in passing Amendment 4, which automatically restores the right to vote for most felons. The outcome brings Florida into the mainstream with the rest of the country and welcomes more than 1 million residents back to the democratic process. Whatever the political implications, this is a resounding victory for voting rights.
It seems both obvious and astonishing: No one who will benefit from Amendment 4 voted for it. They couldn’t, of course. The amendment needed at least 60 percent approval to be added to the Florida Constitution, and its success disproves the adage that people generally vote their own self-interest.
Now, everyone convicted of a felony — except murder and felony sex crimes — who has completed all conditions of their sentence, such as serving prison time, completing parole or paying restitution, will automatically regain the right to vote. It means the wait is over for thousands of people stuck in a backlogged application process to be granted clemency by a governor bent on marginalizing them.
When Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, he and the Cabinet reversed years of progress — imposing a minimum five-year wait on anyone seeking clemency and requiring them to submit to an arduous, often futile process. Scott boasted in Clemency Board meetings, where he presided alongside the three state Cabinet members, that “there’s absolutely no standards so we can make any decisions we want.” Most of the time, applications were denied. While more than 150,000 people had their voting rights restored under Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott’s predecessor, that number dwindled to just a few thousand under Scott. No more.
The implications for the state’s elections are enormous. Florida barred more felons than any other state from voting and an estimated 1 out of 5 African-American men. Since blacks overwhelmingly tend to vote Democratic, they could newly wield considerable sway at the voting booth. But consider that some two-thirds of people in Florida with felony convictions are not black, and most have never served prison time. This is not a victory for partisanship. It’s a triumph for fairness.
Amendment 4 reached the ballot after a grassroots initiative that collected more than 800,000 signatures. It passed because a large majority of Florida voters recognized the injustice of the current system and saw the value in extending a second chance to people who have paid their debts and deserve to reclaim their status as full citizens.