Florida could restore voting rights to 1.5 million residents — and reshape the state’s politics


Florida voters will cast their ballots in November to elect politicians in high-stakes races — and to determine whether more than 1 million of their fellow residents will soon be able to do the same.

Along with contentious gubernatorial and Senate races, one of the most consequential items on the Florida midterm ballot is Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative. The measure asks whether voting rights should be automatically restored to those convicted of a felony — with the exception of murder and felony sexual offenses — once they’ve completed their sentences, including prison, parole and probation.

Currently, Florida is one of only four states that do not allow those with felony convictions to regain the right to vote unless specifically restored by a state officer or board. The policy dates back to the state’s Constitution in 1868, which was ratified in the wake of the 15th Amendment giving black men the right to vote.

“When [Florida] finally ratified the constitution in 1868, it included a felon disenfranchisement provision — which, given the fact that in the previous three years, Florida had passed criminal laws that were aimed at criminalizing African-American people, was intended to basically evade the mandate of the 15th Amendment,” Sean Morales-Doyle, Democracy Program counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in an interview. “So the purpose was to make it less likely that black men would be able to vote after the 15th Amendment, and it’s really a shame that we’re still living with those effects 150 years later. But we are.”

The 150-year-old law has an outsized effect on current Florida residents. According to the Sentencing Project, 1,487,847 Floridians convicted of felonies who had completed their sentences were disenfranchised in 2016, making up 48% of all post-sentence disenfranchised felons in the country. Florida has more than 1.6 million disenfranchised individuals from felony convictions — including those who have not yet completed their sentences — accounting for 10.43% of the state’s total population and 21% of the state’s African-American population.

Should Amendment 4 pass, it could enfranchise more voters at once than any other measure since women’s suffrage, the New York Times reported in September. That kind of widespread voter enfranchisement could have a huge effect in Florida, which is known as one of the country’s key swing states: President Donald Trump won the state in 2016 by roughly 120,000 votes, and former President George W. Bush carried Florida by slightly more than 500 votes on his way to the presidency in 2000.

“If two-thirds of those (1.5 million) convicted felons go register ... and if 10% of those people actually go vote ... that’s 100,000 new voters we didn’t have before,” Richard Harrison, who is leading the opposition to Amendment 4 as the executive director of Floridians For a Sensible Voting Policy, said in an interview. “And in the state of Florida that’s enough to swing a statewide election.”

For those currently disenfranchised, the ballot measure’s success would be much more personal.

“[Voting] means a lot now because I have a family, and since I have a family I’d like to have a say-so in the things that affect them,” Demetrius Jifunza, a 41-year-old who was convicted of a felony for taking part in a robbery at age 18, said in an interview. “That’s the worst thing you can ever do — to want to fight for your children, for your family and you can’t do that.”

“I think being able to vote is the No. 1 thing that you should be able to do,” Jifunza, who founded the Sarasota chapter of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, added. “I mean, if you go to work, you pay taxes, you raise a family, you should have a say in the sort of things that affect you. I mean, if you are taking money out of my income, I should be able to have a say-so in everything, and being able to vote gives you that opportunity to do that.”

Florida’s felon voting rights currently rely on a slow — and allegedly biased — process

Currently, felon voting rights in Florida can only be restored by a four-person clemency board led by the state’s governor, and individual applicants must wait at least five years after completing their sentence to appeal their case. Current Gov. Rick Scott enacted the rules in 2011, replacing a previous, more lenient policy.

“If you’ve committed a serious crime, [then] society can say you don’t get to participate in helping to make the laws anymore,” Harrison said. “Now, we’ll give you a chance to earn that right back, but you are going to have to go through a process.”

That process, however, is plagued with difficulties. The board meets four times a year and approves fewer than 100 cases each time, resulting in a backlog of over 100,000 cases, according to the Tampa Bay Times. As of February, Scott had restored voting rights to only 3,000 individuals since taking office in 2011.

The board-based practice also opens the door to potential biases; a court ruling in February striking down the process — which an appeals court later blocked — noted that those convicted of felonies must “conduct and comport [themselves] to the satisfaction of the board’s subjective — and, frankly, mythical — standards” to get their voting rights restored. Applicants may be turned down for such minor infractions as a traffic violation and can be asked personal questions during the process, such as whether they drink or attend church.

Scott himself has said the board “can do whatever we want,” and the February ruling cited an instance in which the governor immediately restored one individual’s voting rights after the applicant said he favored Scott in the previous election.

“I can go there and based on the way I look, they may not even like me — or if I don’t go to church as to one of the questions they ask, that might be a problem,” Jifunza said.

Jifunza has not yet been able to plead his case in front of Scott. Though he applied for clemency in 2000 under former Gov. Jeb Bush, he said he is still considered ineligible for enfranchisement. Efforts to contact the state about his application have been unsuccessful, he added.

“You got people sitting up there, they all come from one background, one demographic, and a majority of them come from money,” Jifunza said about the clemency board. “So their outlook is going to be completely different than someone else’s outlook. And that’s not fair at all.”

Harrison said he believes the current process “isn’t broken,” although he acknowledged it is “sometimes painfully slow.”

“There’s nothing bad with taking a case-by-case approach,” Harrison said. “But if you are going to take a case-by-case approach, you have to be willing to dedicate the time and resources necessary to move those things along.”

Whether the state’s next governor will be asked to dedicate those resources depends on the outcome of the November vote. Recent polling suggests Amendment 4 enjoys majority support: A September survey conducted by the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida found 71% of likely voters backed the measure, which will need 60% of the vote to succeed.

“If it passes, it’s changing the entire direction of where Florida was going,” Jifunza said. “I mean, it’s going to — you’re going to have more players in the process of decision-making. If you can’t decide or have a voice in the basic laws that govern you, are you really out of prison?”

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