Former felons will be voting in Florida. The questions are when and what hurdles they’ll have to jump.
State voters in November approved Amendment 4, enshrining the right in the state’s Constitution to have the vote restored to most criminals after they’re released from custody.
The legislature is now stumbling over what that means.
Republicans lawmakers pushed a measure through the state House on Wednesday that says ex-cons must have paid off their fines before they are considered free and clear of the criminal justice system, and able to have their voting rights restored. Democrats say that’s racist.
Florida’s fight is the latest in a state-by-state battle by voting-rights activists and advocates for former felons, who say part of rejoining society is the ability to get back fundamental civil rights.
No consensus has emerged, but experts say the movement is decidedly toward more leniency in terms of restoring the right.
“All the confusion is a big problem for people,” said Bobby Hoffman, a voting rights policy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union. “But over the last 20 years you do see a trend of states that had additional requirements that needed to be met shifting toward making it easier as soon as people are no longer incarcerated.”
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a leading contender for the Democrats’ 2020 presidential nod, stirred things up when he suggested felons should be able to vote from prison. This week he made clear that even includes terrorists.
Vermont and Maine already allow incarcerated individuals to vote, but other states are covered by a patchwork of policies.
Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia permit felons to re-register at some point upon leaving prison, depending on the crime, Mr. Hoffman said.
Colorado and New York joined Florida in 2018 in relaxing voting restrictions on some formerly incarcerated felons. Measures were also passed the previous year in Louisiana, Alabama and Wyoming.
The process has been particularly contentious in Virginia, where different governors have tried to impose their preference through executive orders.
Where most voters are willing to draw the line remains to be seen, though the trend is toward leniency, according to scholars who look at the intersection of politics and morality.
“At some level this is all a part of trying to transform a criminal into a decent citizen,” said Florida’s Southeastern University President Kent Ingle. “It really doesn’t make sense to give people who are incarcerated the right to vote. But I think people see that if someone has served their time, shouldn’t he be allowed to vote and be critically engaged with what’s going on?”
It is not clear how many former felons have availed themselves of the chance to regain their voting rights in states that have tinkered with their laws. Several states contacted by The Washington Times said they do not track that figure as a separate statistic.
The Brennan Center for Justice figures perhaps 1 million felons could be affected by Florida’s Amendment 4, whose changes do not extend to the crimes of murder and sexual offenses.
Neil Volz, the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the petition drive and the campaign for the proposal, said the measure was carefully crafted after many months of listening to people throughout the state to get a clear idea of what majorities would support.
“I’m a returning citizen myself,” Mr. Volz said, using the vernacular for rehabilitated felons.
He described his own re-registration process in January, 13 years after he lost his voting rights, as a “joyful and exciting ceremony” in which friends, family and even county elections officials participated.
Both Mr. Volz and James Hill, a communications officer with Nonprofit VOTE, noted that people who have been released and are now taxpayers offer a compelling example of citizens who should not be denied the right.