Last week, Florida voted to restore voting rights to as many as 1.4 million people with felony records, a number which includes 500,000 African-Americans. According to the New York Times, Amendment 4 passed with more than the required 60 percent threshold (and 766, 200 signatures were needed to place it on the ballot). Thus, an overwhelming share of voters supported it. The amendment restores voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences, parole, and probation, except for those convicted of murder or sexual assault. In fact, many people said it was the proposed amendment that prompted them to vote. Most Floridians who voted for the amendment were from Democratic counties, but a considerable amount of support came from Republican-leaning counties.
Despite the measure’s popularity, much debate preceded its passage. Supporters believed the voting laws unfairly eliminated democratic rights for felons. Opponents claimed that felons, in order to regain this right, should still be required to demonstrate through the justice system that they have fully reformed. It is important to note that Florida was one of only four states that disenfranchised former felons.
Under the state constitution, Amendment 4 will take effect on January 8. Howard Simon, outgoing executive director of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union and one of the proponents who helped write the ballot language, said “people should just go register and vote,” and that felons would not be required to provide evidence to election officials that they have completed their sentences. Other advocates of the measure say their priority now is to get re-enfranchised felons registered again, so they can exercise their new right.
Bearing these points in mind, it is crucial to look at the reform’s implications. Simon says the Florida ACLU will oppose attempts by the state to deny registration by felons due to failure to pay fees charged by local clerks of court. However, Amendment 4 implies that several state agencies, which could include the Department of Corrections, the Department of Law Enforcement, and county elections offices, will have to share information about former felons in order to inform election officials of which of them have completed their sentences and are able to vote. Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project which worked for the measure, said her nonprofit and other groups will monitor election officials to see whether they are asking felons to provide paperwork showing they have completed their sentences, a requirement she believes could again disenfranchise them. So there is clearly a dispute about the manner in which the amendment will be implemented.
While the right to vote is absolutely a democratic and human right that should be guaranteed to our citizens, it is important to discuss exactly what any exceptions should be. Since felonies in Florida can range from simple drug possession to aggravated assault, the seriousness of each type undeniably varies. But regardless of the crime, it is important that felons demonstrate they have reformed at least to the extent of having completed their sentences, including parole and probation. For this reason, Florida state officials should require that former felons who wish to vote have done this.