Floridians approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions once they complete their sentences, a historic move expanding the right to vote to about 1.4 million people and reverses a state policy rooted in the Jim Crow South.
The move is one of the most dramatic expansions of the franchise in modern times.
Florida is one of four states that permanently prevents people with felonies from voting, even if they’ve completed their sentence, probation and parole. The 1.4 million people in the state who have been disenfranchised by that policy represent an estimated 10 percent of Florida’s voting population and a quarter of the total disenfranchised population in the United States. More than 1 in 5 African-Americans in the state are disenfranchised because of the policy, according to an estimate from The Sentencing Project. The only way people can get the right to vote back is if the governor decides to grant it to them through a process that takes years.
People convicted of murder and sexual offenses are exempt from the amendment and won’t have their rights automatically restored.
Florida started permanently barring felons from voting after the Civil War as Congress forced states to ratify the 13th and 14th Amendments guaranteeing all men the right to vote. Blocking felons from voting while also passing criminal codes that targeted black people was a strategy to keep African-Americans from the ballot box.
The state’s constitution allowed the governor to restore voting rights for any reason he or she saw fit and didn’t require an explanation. When Republican Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, he changed the rules of the process and required people to wait five to seven years before they could begin to apply. Scott and other top officials met only four times a year to consider applications to restore voting rights, causing a backlog of more than 10,000 requests. Several people who appeared before the board this year said they had begun the process to get their voting rights restored over a decade ago.
Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group behind the measure, said he and Desmond Meade, the group’s chair, were watching the returns in a hotel room in Orlando together and broke into tears when it was announced the amendment passed.
“This is just a vote of love, man. To see so many people in a room crying, hugging each other and really just celebrating years worth of hard work. I’m feeling a new chapter is beginning,” he said in an interview.
Virginia, Iowa and Kentucky remain the only states with permanent disenfranchisement policies on the books. In Virginia, however, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has continued a policy begun under his predecessor of personally aggressively restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions.
This article has been updated with comment from Volz.