Florida election officials haven’t gotten any guidance on how to implement a massive change in the state’s process for restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions, prompting criticism from advocates who say state officials shouldn’t slow-walk the historic change.
Florida is one of four states that permanently strip the right to vote from people with felony convictions, and it is home to a significant chunk of the nation’s disenfranchised population. But in November, Floridians overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to any felons who have completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” People convicted of murder and sexual offenses are excluded.
The measure, which could affect up to 1.4 million people, will take effect Jan. 8, but it’s unclear what constitutes a completed sentence and which felony offenses are disqualified, said Paul Lux, the president of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections.
“We don’t have any guidance from the state, and that’s probably the single point of consternation on the part of the supervisors here in Florida,” said Lux, who is the supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County.
Asked whether the Florida Department of State planned any efforts to inform people about the change to the state’s disenfranchisement policy, department spokeswoman Sarah Revell said it would follow direction from lawmakers and other state officials.
“The Florida Department of State will abide by any future direction from the Executive Clemency Board or the Florida Legislature regarding necessary action or implementing legislation to ensure full compliance with the law,” she said.
“We don’t have any guidance from the state, and that’s probably the single point of consternation on the part of the supervisors here in Florida.”
There was alarm last week when Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis (R) told The Palm Beach Post that the measure shouldn’t be implemented until state lawmakers pass legislation clarifying how the amendment will work. The comments prompted a strong rebuke from organizers behind the amendment, who say it is self-executing and neither the governor nor lawmakers may tweak it. The legislature won’t meet until March and, as Mother Jones reported, lawmakers have a history of weakening amendments passed by voters.
The confusion alone could have significant consequences for voters. Lying on a voter registration form in Florida is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Officials could register someone only to later find out that the person is ineligible after the state gets around to clarifying the rules. Also, newly eligible voters might not register because they are unaware of or confused about the change in policy.
Come Jan. 8, advocates say, people who have completed their sentence and have not been convicted of one of the disqualifying offenses may register to vote.
“It is our position that Amendment 4 is self-executing and nothing further needs to be done,” said Melba Pearson, the interim executive director of the ACLU of Florida, part of the coalition that drafted and pushed for the amendment. “We designed it in such a way that it would limit the involvement of any politicians, legislators. None of those folks are needed to be able to implement this amendment.”
Election supervisors wanted the Florida Secretary of State’s Office to brief them at a meeting this month, but they got no guidance, said Lori Edwards, the Polk County supervisor of elections. Maria Matthews, the director of the state’s election division, couldn’t tell the officials when they could expect more information, Edwards said.
“My only concern is that there may not be uniformity among county election offices in how they interpret their responsibilities,” Edwards said in an email. “It is unclear how to determine if a felon has completed ‘all terms of their sentence, including parole and probation.’ What is the source of that information?”
The ACLU and other groups that supported the amendment sent a memo last week to Florida Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner, a Republican appointee of the governor, urging him to take “immediate administrative action” to guide implementation of the measure. They said the state does not need to change its process to verify voting eligibility and said repaying all fines and fees associated with a sentence could be considered a necessary condition of completing a sentence.
Ellen Friedin, an attorney who previously worked on ballot initiatives in the state, noted that Detzner’s term expires on Jan. 7, the day before the amendment takes effect. It’s unclear if he will be reappointed, and she said it wasn’t a “totally unreasonable position” to allow whoever is the state’s next chief election official to give the guidance on how the amendment is implemented.
State Sen. Keith Perry (R), the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, said in an interview he wanted to convene a workshop in early January to bring together advocates, election and criminal justice officials to discuss implementation. He said he was unsure if the legislature would have a role in implementing the amendment.
Several local supervisors of elections told HuffPost they didn’t plan to change their process for registering voters after the amendment goes into effect. The Florida voter registration form asks applicants to affirm that their voting rights have been restored if they have been convicted of a felony. The supervisors said they would continue to accept registrations from people who indicated they are eligible.
“Amendment 4 from my perspective is not a real change for Supervisors. We are required to process Voter Registration Applications and to accept all data provided by the applicant at face value, this includes their answer to number 2 on the voter application. We do no investigations on the applicants’ answers,” Mike Hogan, the supervisor of elections in Duval County, wrote in an email.
He said his office would then forward the application to the Florida Secretary of State’s Office, which would be responsible for confirming that the applicant is eligible.
Lux said he worried that well-intentioned organizers might bring in people to register to vote who are ineligible.
“I’m not saying to people, ‘Don’t come and register,’” he said. “Don’t just run out there en masse and grab everyone who’s been convicted of a felony and say, ‘Come on, you can register now.’ Because that may or may not be true and you don’t want to help them get themselves in more trouble.”
Pearson said the ACLU is gearing up for a voter education campaign to make sure people understand eligibility. Neil Volz, the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, one of the main groups behind the push for Amendment 4, said he has been working with people with felony convictions to make sure they understand the new requirements for being eligible to vote.
“Individuals who have finished all portions of their sentence and are eligible to do so have a right to do so on the 8th, and the government does not have a right to stop them,” he said in an interview. “At the same time, I believe that there are agencies and departments that are working to transition from one system to another. And the legislature has an oversight responsibility and a funding responsibility to make sure that that process plays out appropriately.”
“If you’re going to walk into the supervisor of elections’ office on Jan. 8, we need to make sure that you’ve completed all portions of your sentence,” he said. “It’s on you to be comfortable knowing that you have done that.”
This story has been updated with a comment from the Florida Department of State.
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