By Christopher Zoukis
In the November mid-term election, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, the Voting Restoration Amendment, a ballot measure amending the state’s constitution to eliminate a provision that permanently removed the voting rights for well over a million state residents who have been convicted of felonies. The new amendment becomes Article VI, sections 4(a) and (b) of the state constitution, in a section dealing with voting disqualifications.
Under the newly approved amendment, Florida residents who’ve been convicted of a felony can have their voting rights restored after they complete all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation. The new amendment explicitly doesn’t apply to persons convicted for murder or felony sexual offenses; they would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet make a case-by-case determination and vote to restore an applicant’s voting rights.
States can set the qualifications for voting in their elections, subject to restrictions under the U.S, constitution, and they differ in their requirements. The most lenient are two New England states (Maine and Vermont) that allow inmates to vote while still serving their sentences. Nearly all other states get additional requirements for voting after conviction for a serious crime, and some of these go back almost 200 years. Florida’s constitution had included provisions barring voting by criminals since 1838 when it was still a territory.
The most common additional requirement is that released felons are not re-enfranchised until they have completed all terms of their sentences, such as parole or probation. Until the voters succeeded in repealing and replacing a provision in Florida’s constitution, the state had the most onerous requirement for former felons: a lifetime ban on voting. Exact figures aren’t available, but in 2016, estimates of Florida voters ineligible to vote due to a conviction ran as high as 1.4 million, or about 9.2% of the state’s voting-age residents. Nationwide, approximately 6.1 million persons are estimated to be disenfranchised due to state voting restrictions based on criminal records.
Because of the disproportionate effect of some crimes, particularly drug offenses, it’s estimated Florida’s lifetime ban on ex-felons’ voting keeps about 17.9% of its voting-age African-Americans away from its polling places.
The amendment had widespread bipartisan backing. A Second Chances Campaign grassroots effort made millions of voter canvassing visits, phone calls and text messages to help the measure’s chief sponsor Floridians for a Fair Democracy garner over 1.2 million petition signatures to put the measure on this November’s ballot.
The measure drew support not only from liberal activists like the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union but also from conservative “smart on crime” groups like the Koch Industries-affiliated Freedom Partners. Amendment 4 also drew the most votes of the dozen citizen initiative measures and was supported by about two-thirds of voters casting a ballot on it (60% approval was needed to pass).
With the new amendment in place, starting in January, ex-felons who meet its standards will be able to register to vote in Florida. Potential new voters are estimated to be around a million, a number large enough to have a significant impact in future presidential elections in a major swing state.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.