Florida lawmakers met for the first time this week to begin to figure out how exactly to implement a historic measure approved by voters making it easier for felons to get the right to vote back.
In November, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that did away with the state’s policy of permanently disenfranchising people with felony convictions — a move that could affect up to 1.4 million people. On its face, the amendment seems relatively uncomplicated: Those who complete all terms of their sentence gets their voting rights automatically restored, except for people convicted of felony murder and sexual offenses.
But during a meeting Tuesday in Tallahassee, lawmakers, advocates, and state and local officials discussed the complications of actually implementing the amendment. Which specific crimes, they asked, amount to a disqualifying murder offense? Does someone have to repay all fines and fees to complete their sentence entirely? And how can officials set up a system to allow people with felony convictions — who might be wary of registering — to easily check to see if they are eligible to vote?
The constitutional measure, often called Amendment 4, officially went into effect on Jan. 8, but election officials said they have gotten little guidance from the state on how to implement it (many are accepting voter registration forms from anyone who indicates they are eligible). The meeting Tuesday underscored the complex road for the state in figuring out the details of how the system will work.
The implementation also may grow more challenging. On Thursday, newly appointed Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel (R), the state’s top election official, resigned after a photograph of him in blackface became public.
Some activists are also worried that the Florida Legislature — which has a history of muting the effect of constitutional amendments — will gut Amendment 4 by expanding the number of crimes exempt from automatic restoration of voting rights or making it more burdensome to regain those rights. Those concerns were heightened when Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) suggested the amendment should be delayed until lawmakers figure out a process for restoring voting rights.
On Tuesday, state Sen Jeff Brandes (R) pressed Neil Volz, the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which pushed strongly for Amendment 4, to explain whom the drafters of the amendment intended to exclude when they exempted people convicted of murder from voting. Volz said the exclusion only applied to people convicted of first-degree murder.
Murder means murder. Neil Volz, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition
“Murder means murder,” he said.
But lawmakers expressed skepticism about why the amendment would distinguish between first-degree murder and second-degree murder.
State Sen. Keith Perry (R), the chair of the criminal justice committee, said he thought Volz was confused and that it wouldn’t make sense not to include second-degree murder, especially if violent sexual crimes were on that list of exemptions.
“Personally, I clearly think murder, first degree or second degree, would be included,” Perry said in a telephone interview. “There’s a difference between the premeditation and doing it... you wouldn’t think a violent sexual offense would be more than second-degree murder.”
Maria Matthews, director of the state’s division of elections, said her office was using the crimes outlined in Florida’s criminal code to define murder. Still, she said there were ambiguities. State law includes partial-birth abortion, for example, among offenses that qualify as murder, and it was unclear whether that amounted to a disqualifying offense when it came to voting.
Melba Pearson, the deputy director of the ACLU of Florida, which helped draft Amendment 4, said she was “a bit frustrated” with some of the discussion surrounding the technicalities of the law. She said the exception applied only to an offense with the word “murder” in it.
“Maybe it’s me being a bit jaded, having been a prosecutor and a criminal justice practitioner. I’m not sure why there’s a confusion about murder,” said Pearson, who was a prosecutor in Miami-Dade County for over a decade. “There’s only one charge by the name of first-degree murder. There’s only one charge with the name of second-degree murder…. So to me it’s clear on its face.”
Pearson added it would be concerning if the Legislature started including a wide range of offenses among those that exempted felons from automatic restoration of their voting rights.
“If, for some reason, they try to start broadening the definitions of sexual assault or murder, that would be alarming to me,” Pearson said. “Again, this language was vetted by the Florida Supreme Court, and voters knew what they were voting for, so to now change fundamentally what the amendment is would be extremely problematic.”
Lawmakers also wanted to know if someone had to repay all the fines and fees associated with a sentence to completely finish it. Court fees can rack up quickly and can go unpaid because people don’t have the money. Critics argue that making voting eligibility contingent on repaying those kinds of fees is akin to a poll tax because the only thing hindering someone’s ability to vote is their ability to pay. Volz and Pearson said the only fines and fees someone should be required to pay before being eligible to vote are those specifically ordered by a judge as part of the sentence.
There was also some concern that the lack of clarity could allow ineligible people to get on the voting rolls and dissuade eligible felons from coming forward to register. Local supervisors of elections can’t currently immediately verify whether someone who registers has completed their sentence. Instead, they accept a registration form from anyone who claims to be eligible and then forwards it to state officials, who check to make sure people are eligible. Perry said there should be a “clearinghouse” where people can easily go and see if they’ve completed all the terms of their sentence necessary to vote.
Pearson said that, regardless of whatever system the lawmakers and officials set up, it should be clear that it’s still the responsibility of state officials — not voters — to verify registrants’ eligibility. “The onus remains with the state to determine eligibility to remove someone from the rolls if they are not in fact eligible.”
Perry said he was aware of concerns that the lawmakers would limit the effect of the amendment and that he would ensure that didn’t happen. He said he didn’t believe lawmakers were “enacting legislation” but rather were “enabling legislation.”
“I will not have any bill that would, in any way, put even a temporary stop to this,” he said, referring to the implementation of Amendment 4. “It’s in law, it’s the constitution. Our goal is to let the process go so people believe they’re legally allowed to vote, register to vote, that they are allowed to do that now. Nothing that you’re going to see is going to stop that process.”
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