Despite hedging from Florida’s Republican leaders, an amendment that allows eligible former felons to register to vote will go into effect on Tuesday, state elections officials say.
Considered to be one of the most significant voting rights acts in state history, Amendment 4 passed last year with 64 percent of the vote. Experts believe that the pool of those whose voting rights have been restored is at least 1.2 million people. That would mean more than 415,115 in South Florida (172,935 Broward, 158,485 Dade, 83,694 Palm Beach), according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of precinct demographic data.
Elections supervisors reached by the Times said that, beginning Tuesday, they won’t hesitate to implement Amendment 4 and will register those who, under the law, have regained their right to vote.
“By law, the amendment goes into effect Jan. 8, and the language was very clear that it restores voting rights to all who have completed their terms of sentence, except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses,” said Gerri Kramer, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.
“Constitutional Amendment Number 4 is effective January 8, 2019. The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections will accept voter registration applications from anyone who believes they are eligible to register to vote,” echoed Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark.
Broward County will process applications from eligible felons as well, according to its new elections supervisor, Peter Antonacci, who replaced Brenda Snipes. His office, however, did provide a statement that warned potential voters should be certain they are in the clear because Amendment 4 “does not define” felony sexual offenses or “all terms of a sentence.”
Until now, Florida was the largest state to not automatically restore voting rights to most felons who had served their sentences. Felons who wanted to vote had to apply for restoration with the state’s clemency board, made up of the governor and the three Cabinet members. But the process was a long shot. The board has a backlog of more than 10,000 applications and meets just once every three months — averaging only 400 voting rights restored a year.
That elections supervisors are saying they will implement Amendment 4 helps dispel some of the confusion that arose last month, when they met with state officials. At the time, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the new chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, said the amendment “may or may not” need legislative action for implementation.
Later in December, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis told the Palm Beach Post the law should be put on hold until the Legislature passes “implementing language.”
Such language could still come later. But it’s not mandatory to register. The Florida Constitution spells out clearly when any new amendment takes effect: the first Tuesday after the first Monday in January.
There’s no other way to read it: on Jan. 8, Amendment 4 will become law. When it does, “any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” The law is already listed on the state’s web site.
Howard Simon, the former executive director of American Civil Liberties Union Florida, which pushed for and helped draft the amendment, compared the completion of a sentence to other voter criteria, such as being an American citizen. Prospective voters don’t need to bring their passport or birth certificate to register, he said.
“People have a right to register to vote if they truthfully affirm the information they provide on the voter registration form.” The onus is then on the government to find and flag any disqualifying factors, he said.
Registration forms will continue to force applicants to check a box asserting “I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored.” It doesn’t ask how the right was restored, whether by the clemency board or by the upcoming rule change.
Brian Corley, Pasco County’s elections supervisor, foresees problems with voters knowing for sure whether they’ve completed their term, and supervisors will continue to coordinate with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to check.
“Willfully” lying on a voter form could be a third-degree felony, Corley pointed out. For that reason, officials warn that Floridians should be sure they’re eligible before they register.
“According to the same processes we follow now,” said Kramer, the Hillsborough spokesman, “if the state presents us with evidence that someone is not eligible to vote, then we contact the voter, and if the voter can’t give us evidence they are eligible to vote, then they will become an ineligible voter.”