MIAMI – A proposed amendment to restore the voting rights of Florida felons after completion of their sentences received just enough signatures to trigger a review by the Florida Supreme Court and a potential place on the November 2018 ballot.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi passed the initiative onto the high court to review the language within the Voting Restoration Amendment. The court will review to see if the language is clear and not misleading, and ensure the initiative has only one purpose. A hearing is expected by the end of the year.
If approved and if the group supporting the initiative, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, can get enough signatures, it can go on the November 2018 ballot.
“The felon voting right initiative is pushed by the recognition that people do make mistakes but deserve a second chance,” American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Director Howard Simon told the Florida Record. “This is all part of Florida’s ugly past. “This system of lifetime felon disenfranchisement was part of a post-Civil War era system designed to take political power away from black people and this is one of the terrible parts of that system that still survives. The only remedy is to bring the Constitution to the 21st century and out of an era still rooted in Jim Crow laws."
Florida is 1 of 4 states that mandate felon disenfranchisement
Almost all U.S. states, with the exception of Maine and Vermont, deny incarcerated felons the right to vote but many restore those rights after they have completed their sentences.
Florida is one of only three states that have state constitutions that mandate lifetime felon disenfranchisement. Voting rights can only be restored as a result of clemency by the governor, or in the case of Florida, by the Cabinet. Felons can apply for restoration of their voting rights, but critics contend the process is too political.
"Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist restored civil and voting rights to some 155,000 and Gov. Jeb Bush restored rights to an average of 14,000 persons per year, but the number has moved down to a few hundred in each of the years of (Gov. Rick) Scott’s first term," Simon said. "The story can’t end with clemency because the change varies too much from administration to administration.”
The number of voting rights restored has been inconsistent and changed substantially with each administration. From 2002-2006, there were 72,080 rights restored. 2007-2010 saw the most change with 155,315 restored, but from 2011-2014 that number has dropped to 1,534 for all four years, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review.
Felon Restoration Amendment could lead to higher costs
The Financial Impact Estimating Conference sent a financial impact statement to the Florida Supreme Court stating that the amendment could result in increased costs for state and local government due to the higher volume of felons registering to vote, however, just how much remains unknown. Changes to the state constitution first require a cost analysis.
“The precise effect of this amendment on state and local government costs cannot be determined, but the operation of current voter registration laws, combined with an increased number of felons registering to vote, will produce higher overall costs relative to the processes in place today,” the conference said in a statement.
The ACLU contends that on the contrary it would be a cost saving measure for the state.
“We think it is a substantial cost saving because there is an entire mechanism in place to keep felons from voting, including probation officers, clerks, paperwork, and then the office that reviews clemency, all that would shrink dramatically,” Simon said.
The conference notes that the increased costs will be higher in the earlier years of implementation due to the amendment’s retroactive application.
“The more people understand about this (felon disenfranchisement), the more outraged they would become,” Simon said. “This is rooted deep in the Jim Crow laws, part of Florida’s very ugly past. It was part of mission to deprive black people of as much political power as possible.”