Florida voters made history on Tuesday, amending their state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions once they complete their sentences. But there still could be hurdles facing the newly enfranchised Floridians, of whom there may be up to 1.4 million.
The measure, known as Amendment 4, erases a state policy of permanent disenfranchisement rooted in the Jim Crow South that blocked more than 1 in 5 African-Americans in the state from voting. The amendment, which goes into effect Jan. 8, makes it clear that people with felony convictions ― except those convicted of murder and sexual offenses ― can vote once they complete their sentences, including probation and parole. Estimates show those newly enfranchised voters, 10 percent of the state’s voting population, could make a difference politically ― but it’s unlikely there will be a new wave of voters casting ballots immediately.
Since 2007, of the people in Florida with felony convictions who went to prison and then went through the state’s cumbersome process to get their voting rights restored, only 14 percent have registered to vote, according to an estimate from the Brennan Center for Justice. In Florida’s August primary, turnout among formerly incarcerated people who had their voting rights restored was three-quarters of the statewide average, the Brennan Center found. (The estimate does not include people convicted of a felony who are sentenced to parole or probation.)
Kirk Bailey, political director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which backed Amendment 4, said the measure is “self-executing,” meaning Florida lawmakers will not have a say in how the amendment is implemented.
Still, the state could make it difficult for people to regain their voting rights. Once Amendment 4 goes into effect, it’s unclear whether the state will only allow people to vote once they entirely repay the fines and fees associated with their sentences, which can quickly add up to hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
“That’s been sort of the big secret of the criminal justice system ― people are on probation or parole, [and] one of the conditions [of completion] is pay your fines and fees,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit organization. “These are indigent people and the fines and fees are quite excessive, so it doesn’t get paid. Typically, if you abide by the other conditions of probation, then they just ignore the fines and fees.”
In February, Mauer co-authored a memo noting that 40 percent of the people waiting to have their voting rights restored in Florida had outstanding fines and fees. If that percentage is the same in 2018, Mauer estimated that the number of people eligible to get their voting rights back would drop from 1.4 million to about 840,000.
Thirty states require people with felony convictions to repay all their fines and fees before they can regain the right to vote, according to a 2016 report by the Alliance for a Just Society. Nine states explicitly require repayment of these obligations in order to vote, while the remaining 21 say repayment is a condition of completing a sentence, which in turn is a condition of getting to vote again. AJS’ report says that to make voting rights contingent on repaying these fees is a “modern poll tax.”
The state will also have to figure out a way for law enforcement and correction officials to share information with election officials to determine which people have fully completed their sentences and are eligible to vote.
Even without formal obstacles from the state, organizers still face the challenge of educating people about their new eligibility.
People with a felony conviction who are now eligible to vote might still be hesitant to vote out of fear they could be doing something illegal, said Rob Scott, executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program in New York.
“There’s all kind of pet theories about what you can and can’t do, in my experience, among people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated,” Scott said. “Those are taken very seriously, because a lot of times they have to do with perceived risk of re-arrest, which is like the last thing you want.”
Floridians affected by Amendment 4 also face many of the same barriers faced by voters everywhere. Those can include “lack of transportation, hourly wage jobs that make taking time off to vote difficult, candidates that don’t represent their interests, and a lack of familiarity with the process,” as Kevin Morris, a researcher at the Brennan Center, wrote in a blog post this week.
Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group that backed Amendment 4, said his organization would emphasize personal stories of people with felony convictions who were voting to convince others to do the same.
“If somebody can say ‘I’m a returning citizen, I’m registering to vote, I need you guys to go register to vote,’ that’s a powerful tool,” Volz said. “Lead by example.”
Mauer said he thinks the particular life experiences of the people affected by Amendment 4 could motivate them to turn out to vote.
“I meet lots of people in prison, or formerly in prison, who never had much interest in politics before,” he said. “And then when they come up against the power of the state justice system, it really is a motivating factor to get them engaged.”