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Should Florida Restore Voting Rights For Former Felons?


Last week, I attended an event in South Florida hosted by the pro-Trump Club 45 Palm Beach County and Turning Point USA, co-hosted by the group’s founder, Charlie Kirk, and communications director, Candace Owens.

A topic of conversation was Florida’s Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to 1.5 million ex-felons who have completed their sentences, with the exception of convicted murderers and sex offenders. To pass, 60 percent of voters must vote “yes.”

As a Florida resident, I believe the legislation is likely to pass. If it does, though, what does that mean for future America First––and Florida First––legislation?

Here’s the Case For the Amendment

The amendment is on the ballot due to efforts by the non-profit Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which is primarily bankrolled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). That alone will raise suspicions among those who may be sympathetic to the amendment’s goal, but distrustful of the ACLU––an organization that increasingly ignores the “L” in its name in favor of partisan objectives.

Florida is one of 13 states that restrict voting rights after an ex-felon has completed a prison sentence, and is no longer on probation or parole; nationwide, six million Americans can’t vote as a result of felony convictions. Supporters of Amendment 4 argue that while ex-felons did the crimes, they also did their time, and re-enfranchisement will offer a true second chance.

To get a proposed amendment on the ballot, a petition must be signed by 766,200 voters, and the signatures must come from at least 14 of Florida’s 27 congressional districts. More than one million signatures were collected by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, led by Desmond Meade, who was convicted of drug crimes, aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm. Meade, who now holds a law degree, has garnered the attention of TV personality Samantha Bee and entertainer John Legend for his activism.

Critics of Florida’s clemency system have labeled it as racist as Jim Crow laws, not to mention unconstitutional, claiming that ex-felons are “permanently” barred from voting. In addition to their re-entry into the state, local, and national democratic process, advocates of the amendment have also touted the alleged economic benefits the change might have.

The right-leaning Coral Gables, Florida, Washington Economics Group recently estimated that since 2011, Florida has lost $2.7 billion from court costs, job loss, and recidivism due to ex-felons’ inability to vote. Considering that Florida has the fourth-largest state economy in the United States, ranked first in fiscal strength last year (fourth this year) in George Mason University’s annual rankings, and was just named America’s freest state by the Cato Institute, nearly $3 billion is a big deal.

The reasoning goes: if ex-felons have paid their criminal debt to society, why restrict their ability to contribute to society and their own neighborhoods, politically and economically? At Floridians for a Fair Democracy’s Web site, there are numerous stories of ex-felons and those never convicted of crimes who worked to get the amendment on the ballot, including data about the nearly 4,000 Florida military veterans whose voting rights would be restored if the amendment passes.

Elsewhere throughout the country, many states are less restrictive than Florida. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote; in 14 states and the District of Columbia, restoration of the right to vote is automatic upon sentence completion; and in 21 states, felons cannot vote while incarcerated, and for a period of time while on parole or probation. Florida is leading the charge on denying ex-felons their ability to vote.

Here’s the Case Against the Amendment

Why do so many states have such differing policies? And how is it constitutional to prohibit felons from voting after sentence completion? In short: states’ rights.

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3, in Richardson v. Ramirez, that barring felons from voting did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The court also left the finer details of what to do to the individual states. Richardson reversed the California Supreme Court’s decision, which had previously ruled that felony disenfranchisement was unconstitutional.

Not helping the Amendment 4 proponents’ cause is a misinformed narrative about how Florida currently handles voting rights for ex-felons. A common talking point is that ex-felons are permanently banned from voting in Florida, but that’s not exactly accurate. An ex-felon must wait for five years post-sentence completion before he or she can apply for a review at the state’s Office of Executive Clemency, which has limited resources and can take years.

So could it take a decade to regain voting rights, subject to approval by bureaucrats? Yes, and while it’s certainly not automatic, and may be much longer than an ex-felon wants, it’s not exactly “permanent.” This policy was put into place seven years ago by current Gov. Rick Scott, who overturned a more lenient policy enacted by his predecessor, Charlie Crist. Annually, Scott and his cabinet hear between 25 and 300 clemency cases; about half regain their right to vote in due time. There’s a backlog of 12,000 cases.

The most visible and vocal statewide opponent to Amendment 4 is non-profit Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, headed by Richard Harrison, a Tampa-based attorney. Harrison’s group argues that Amendment 4 is too broad in scope. The amendment is bad policy, it argues, because it makes no distinction between one-time offenders and repeat felons, and fails to consider the original crime and charges before any plea deals. 

Perhaps the amendment’s most significant Achilles heel isn’t what’s stated in its text, but what isn’t stated. If it fails, I believe it will be because of the belief that ex-felons will overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and also because there is no lifetime voting rights disqualifier for ex-felons who are again convicted of the same, or different, felony crime. Given that there is Supreme Court precedent on the opponents’ side, I believe a lifetime ban could pass constitutional muster.

Amendment 4 Is Heavily Politicized

What, you thought this issue was free of politics?

In the midst of all this, there is also a lingering debate about whether restoring voting rights will reduce recidivism rates, and whether this is a Democrat power grab. In addition to being denied their right to vote, Florida felons cannot legally own a firearm (although this is national policy), and cannot serve on a jury. The amendment only addresses the right to vote; critics and skeptics have asked why there has been only a push to restore voting rights, not to restore ex-convicts’ ability to serve on juries.

Crist took credit for lower recidivism rates from 2007 to 2010, allegedly due to a quicker process to restore voting rights; before 2007, recidivism rates hovered around 33 percent. Once Crist’s policy took effect, two-year rates were 12.4 percent, and three-year recidivism rates were 26.3 percent. Scott, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson this fall, disputes that rates dropped due to a restoration of rights, citing Florida Clemency Board data, which showed that rates had been consistently decreasing. Scott has also said that strict clemency guidelines have likely made Florida a safer state, and have not adversely affected Florida’s economy and tax revenue.

Advocates of the amendment have trouble explaining on last point: the “nonviolent” selling point. Although the adjective “nonviolent” isn’t in the amendment’s text, it’s often used in its marketing and promotion. What percentage of nonviolent ex-felons committed violent crimes, but were sentenced on lesser charges?  The answer in Florida is unclear, but with 1.5 million ex-felons, it’s a reasonable assumption that at least some percentage committed violent crimes before plea deals.

For example, an ex-felon serving a sentence for attempted murder isn’t a murderer, but is still violent, and would be granted his or her voting rights if Amendment 4 passes. An ex-felon who originally conspired to commit armed robbery, but was thwarted by law enforcement might not be any less violent than an actual armed robber. Unfortunately, this line has been blurred by proponents of the amendment.

Will Ex-Felons Only Vote For Democrats?

I suspect most Florida conservatives will vote “no.” Right-leaning independents (called NPAs, or No Party Affiliation) are probably evenly split. Conservatives are a law and order bunch, and many are certain that Florida’s ex-felons would overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

The perception is strong, but the data to back it up is inconsistent and outdated. A 2002 study in The American Sociological Review hypothesized that felons would have voted Democrat 70 percent of the time. The study also estimated that seven out of 400 U.S. Senate races may have flipped from red to blue, between 1970 and 1998, had felons been able to vote nationwide. Whether ex-felons voting could have tipped the 2000 presidential election from George W. Bush to Al Gore is hard to say.

It’s also debatable if the majority of ex-felons would even register to vote.

Ex-felons will know in three weeks if they’ll be eligible to vote beginning in 2019. If the amendment fails, most Republicans will breathe a sigh of relief. But if it passes, Republicans will have a new bloc of voters to whom they can promote America First and Florida First legislation and candidates. No matter the outcome, perhaps all Floridians can agree that the amendment’s fate will be decided in the most democratic way: by the will of the people.