Tuesday is a historic day in Florida. Under an amendment passed by the voters in November, as many as 1.4 million former felons are regaining the right to vote. The referendum overturned a 150-year-old law that permanently disenfranchised people with felony convictions.
Before the change, people who served their time could apply for clemency to a board headed by the governor. But the cumbersome process and a multiyear backlog meant that only a small percentage applied.
As a result, more than 10 percent of Florida’s adult population was not eligible to vote. Desmond Meade who helped organize the referendum campaign says that changed Nov. 6. “We had over 5.1 million voters that voted yes on Amendment 4,” he says. “Not one of those votes was based on hate. Not one of those votes was based on fear, but rather votes of love.”
The amendment automatically restores the right to vote to people with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentences, including parole and probation. It doesn’t apply to those convicted of murder or a felony sex offense. Under Florida’s constitution, it goes into effect Tuesday.
Neil Volz, another who helped organize the campaign with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, says for him and other former felons who worked for it, it’s a day of celebration. “At the same time,” Voz says, “it’s business as usual for the Supervisors of Elections who are going to have people come in and register to vote.”
Elections supervisors in Florida’s 67 counties say they will register to vote former felons who affirm that they’ve fulfilled the terms of their sentences. But Paul Lux, Supervisor of Elections in Okaloosa County and president of the state association of Elections supervisors, sees trouble ahead. He says, “Clearly there are things we do not know and things that we cannot know until someone provides us with better definitions.”
Lux says there are questions about outstanding court costs and restitution judgments. Must those be paid first and what agency is responsible for checking? Lux says there are also questions about what types of violent crimes and sex offenses are excluded under the law. Eventually, he says someone will have to provide elections supervisors with answers. “Whether its gets done by legislation, whether it gets done by administrative rule, or whether it gets done by the court, at some point,” Lux says, “someone is going to have to clarify the process.”
When asked about it in December, Florida’s new governor, Republican Ron DeSantis said he believed legislators would need to pass “implementing language” in a bill that he would sign. That wouldn’t be until at least March, when the legislature goes back into session.
Neil Volz says the amendment voters passed was written clearly and in a way that needs no additional legislation or rulemaking. He says, “We don’t think there’s any role for politicians in this process. In fact, that was part of the role of Amendment 4, to get elected officials out of the business of picking their own voters.”
But even among some longtime activists, there’s uncertainty about whether to register to vote right away or to wait until the governor and legislators weigh in. Some are worried that signing a voter registration form before the rules are clear could be a criminal violation.
Yraida Guanipa is a former felon who’s worked for years on this issue — fighting to regain the right to vote. Even she is nervous. Guanipa says she talked to her husband about it. “He says you better wait until March. You better wait until (you hear) what the governor says.” But Guanipa says her heart, the years of work she put in and her love of democracy is telling her to do it. She planned to be outside the elections office in Miami when it opened Tuesday, one of the first in line to register to vote.