For all the uncertainty surrounding the launch of Amendment 4 in Florida, there’s no question that hundreds of thousands of convicted felons previously unable to participate in the state’s elections will be able to register to vote come Tuesday.
It’s what will happen after they register that remains unclear.
Despite assertions from Amendment 4 advocates that the changes to Florida’s Constitution are self-implementing, incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated his belief Monday that the Legislature must pass a bill to help guide the Division of Elections as it verifies the eligibility of newly registered voters. An estimated 1.2 million people are expected to regain the right to vote Tuesday as the amendment takes effect, and it’s up to the state to verify whether any of those newly registered voters are ineligible due to a disqualifying criminal offense.
For now, in order to ensure that no one is disenfranchised while the state determines how to comply with Amendment 4, the Division of Elections has stopped running new voters through its felony database. That means those who believe their rights have been restored can register to vote and likely begin participating at the very least in local elections.
But it also means that it could be weeks or even months before the state notifies any of those new voters if they’ve been deemed ineligible. And it would potentially compound any controversy should the Legislature take a restrictive interpretation of the amendment.
“We have a cadre of attorneys that have been meeting for at least the past two months now that stands at the ready in case there are any issues,” said Desmond Meade, a Florida Rights Restoration Coalition board member who himself plans to register Tuesday.
DeSantis on Monday assured reporters that the state is simply being deliberate, noting that completing a sentence can involve restitution or paying fees. House Speaker Jose Oliva said in an interview that state government just needs guidance.
“It’s not at all the desire of the House or the Senate in any way to delay the implementation,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said in an interview. “We want to make sure we’re true to what people voted for. I don’t think people wanted violent criminals to be voting.”
What the amendment says explicitly is that any convicted felons who have fulfilled the terms of their sentence and completed probation or parole will automatically have their voting rights restored in Florida. Prior to the amendment taking affect, convicted felons were required to seek the restoration of their rights from Florida’s clemency board, made up by the governor and the Cabinet.
While the amendment excludes anyone convicted of murder or a “felony sexual offense,” it applies to a more than 1 million people, including more than 400,000 in South Florida, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of precinct demographic data. The clemency board, meanwhile, has more than 10,000 unresolved cases.
Meade’s organization and others, like the League of Women Voters, are engaging in outreach efforts to encourage anyone whose rights have been restored to register as a voter. Meade remains confident that the amendment is explicit in its direction, and that voters are able to confidently seek to return to the voting rolls and begin participating again in elections.
“Something that gets lost in all this is that this [amendment] language went before the Florida Supreme Court already,” he said.
But there’s also an acknowledgment that, with no direction to voters from the Division of Elections, people who believe their rights have been restored will likely need guidance. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is among the groups offering legal assistance to convicted felons who believe they are now eligible to vote, and is one of the organizations to which voters are being directed by elections supervisors when they ask for advice on whether their rights have indeed been restored by Amendment 4.
“I’m not going to tell them ‘Sure, go ahead and register,’” said R. Joyce Griffin, supervisor of elections for Monroe County, noting that submitting false information on a registration affidavit can be a third-degree felony. “If I do and they haven’t told me all the information, then I could be helping them commit another felony. And I don’t want that on my soul.”
Though elections experts say it’s highly unlikely that anyone found to have incorrectly believed their rights restored would be prosecuted, elections supervisors process all applications based on an honor system. Ronald Labasky, general counsel to the Florida State Association of Elections Supervisors, noted in a memo last month to elections departments that “it is the responsibility of the applicant ... to affirm all information in the application is true, subject to the penalty of false swearing.”
In order to give guidance to Miami voters, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office on Monday said that it will not prosecute anyone who simply errs on the voter form. “As a matter of fact,” said spokesman Ed Griffith, “we are currently working with the ACLU, the NAACP and members of the Legislature to ensure that Amendment 4 is immediately implemented.”
In the meantime, local and state officials say they’re trying to help voters who may be confused about whether to register or not. Supervisors are directing voters to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, local clerks offices and to the Florida Department of Corrections. State Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, on Monday gathered local officials together to try to coordinate information.
“There needs to be a clearing house,” he said.