The Land of the Hanging Chads isn’t waiting until November 2020 to kick off its traditional fight over how to run an election.
A referendum to amend the state constitution to restore voting rights to some 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions was hailed as a breakthrough in criminal justice reform when voters approved it a year ago.
But the state’s halting, politically charged effort to implement the voters’ wishes with barely more than a year before Election Day is a mess, according to supporters, opponents and even the federal judge reviewing the process.
Given Florida’s long tradition of razor-thin election margins, how the state ultimately implements the measure could easily sway the outcome of the presidential contest in the state — and perhaps the nation.
“This could well be the tiny factor that tips the state,” longtime Florida-based pollster Fernand Amandi said in an interview.
With 29 electoral votes, Florida is considered the richest prize among the nation’s swing states and consistently hosts memorable, bare-knuckle battles between Democrats and Republicans.
Three of the past five presidential elections in Florida have been decided by 1 percentage point or less. The infamous clash between George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore in 2000 was settled by a mere 537 hotly disputed votes. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, won last year by just 32,000 votes out of more than 8 million ballots cast.
Floridians now find themselves at ground zero in the voting rights battle after the approval last year of Amendment 4, a ballot measure that allowed former felons — other than those convicted of murder or serious sex offenses — to register to vote once their punishment is complete.
Billed as a way to end a racist, restrictionist policy dating from the state’s Jim Crow days that impeded blacks from voting, Amendment 4 passed by 64.6%, with support from Republicans, Democrats and independents.
But that result plunged the state into a raging debate over how to define a complete sentence of punishment.
The Republican-controlled state Legislature in Tallahassee approved a proposal this year stipulating that punishment is complete when all court fines, fees and legal restitution to victims are paid. Opponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP likened the proviso to the revival of a poll tax from the segregationist era.
Supporters of the Legislature’s move said lawmakers had a responsibility to implement the amendment in an orderly fashion with little direct instruction from the text.
“We’re here today because we have a tough problem to solve,” state Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican and one of the main architects of the legislation, told Politico in March.
The Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, a statewide, nonprofit member association, estimated that more than $1 billion in felony fines are on the books from 2013 to 2018 alone, with payback rates at less than 20% a year. One analyst estimated that the Legislature’s move would still block voting rights for up to 80% of ex-felons who have completed their prison time.
Mr. DeSantis, who opposed Amendment 4, signed the legislation with an eye on fighting it later, local pundits say. At the time, he wrote a letter saying the law “confirms that the amendment does not apply to a felon who has failed to complete all the terms of his sentence.”
Paying it back
The spotlight then fell on the complexity of paying fines, especially restitution to victims.
Florida has no central database for such payments, which vary widely across its 67 counties. Adding to the confusion, fines range from a few hundred dollars to massive million-dollar awards and can be collected while felons are in prison or out on parole. Payments move through intermediaries such as court clerks or the state Department of Corrections.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a nonprofit Amendment 4 supporter, has estimated that 500,000 of 1.4 million former felons would be prevented from registering to vote because of the law. The liberal Brennan Center for Justice said most of those affected are likely to be black and have low incomes.
The ACLU, NAACP and League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit against the Legislature’s move that was heard in federal court this week.
At a hearing in downtown Tallahassee, state attorneys argued that the Legislature’s requirements were reasonable interpretations of the language in Amendment 4.
But U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, an appointee of President Clinton, strongly disagreed and accused lawmakers of creating a “mess” that has left former felons afraid to register to vote.
“What we have now is an administrative nightmare,” Mr. Hinkle said Tuesday.
With a ruling expected in the coming weeks and Florida’s presidential primary set for March 17, Democratic and Republican Party operatives are monitoring the proceedings closely.
Pollsters say the injection of former felons onto the voter rolls only adds more uncertainty to a politically unpredictable state. Florida has roughly 4.4 million registered Republicans, about 4.6 million Democrats and nearly 3 million independents.
Local media have noted that the Trump 2020 presidential campaign is already building a more sophisticated network than it had in 2016 to deal with the murky situation.
“The Florida electorate is fluid and in a constant state of reinvention,” said Mr. Amandi, who specializes in Hispanic voting patterns. “The political perspectives of Latinos and African-Americans, Generation X, millennials, retiring baby boomers, hard-line conservative Cubans — these all react to multiple variables.”
But, he added, “it is easy to see why the state’s Republican leadership is slow-rolling Amendment 4’s implementation. Most of those who register because of it will be Democrats.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.