A slow-motion crisis is building in the state of Florida.
Top elections officials are putting the brakes on a voter-approved constitutional amendment to restore the franchise to hundreds of thousands of residents with felony convictions. Voting rights advocates fear that the Sunshine State—which has a long, ugly history of disproportionately disenfranchising minorities and restricting access to the ballot—could undermine the largest expansion of the franchise in decades.
Their effort to slow-walk the amendment comes after it passed statewide with 65 percent of the vote in November.
Since Election Day, top elections officials have yet to provide any guidance to the 67 county election supervisors who will actually be implementing the policy at ground level. Both Secretary of State Ken Detzner (R) and Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis (R) have suggested that the amendment can’t take effect until the legislature has a say in how, exactly, its implementation should be rolled out.
Elections supervisors and the groups who backed the amendment disagree. A patchwork of different policies enacted across different counties will lead to confusion for voters and, likely, to litigation, they argue. Without clear, top-down instruction from the state agency responsible for providing it, former felons could even end up improperly registering before the terms of their sentences are complete and getting hit with felony voter fraud charges, they fear.
A coalition of civil rights groups who backed Amendment 4 said as much in a Thursday letter to Detzner, urging him to “take immediate administrative action.”
“Without clear rules this is going to be a mess—and a mess that’s going to last for more than just a year or two,” Charles Zelden, an elections expert at Florida’s Nova Southeastern University told TPM. “That’s where leadership from the state could make a difference. But the problem is that the people who run the state are on the side of the people who don’t want to expand the vote to include these individuals.”
“In some counties, that means they’re going to be very tight and very tough and people are going to find they still have a lot of hoops to go through,” Zelden continued. “And in other counties, its going to be congratulations, you’re a voter, here’s your voting card.”
“That’s probably the biggest danger here of the Division of Elections not acting,” Polk County election supervisor Lori Edwards told TPM. “They potentially can have 67 different ways that this is handled.”
Edwards is one of many supervisors who plans to start registering voters affected by Amendment 4 when her office doors open on Jan. 8, when the new amendment is set to take effect. Under the amendment, any Sunshine State resident who completed all aspects of their sentence and did not commit murder or felony sex offenses will be allowed to vote.
Proponents of Amendment 4 took the issue of felon reinfranchisement to the ballot precisely because they feared interference from unfavorable state administrations, and were frustrated by years of inaction in the GOP-controlled legislature.
The amendment was a repudiation of a policy enacted by outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott that gave a governor-helmed clemency board the final say over whether a former felon would have their voting rights restored. Neither Scott’s nor DeSantis’ offices returned TPM’s requests for comment.
In a Thursday interview with the Palm Beach Post, DeSantis said that the amendment should not take effect until the legislature approves “implementing language” that he then signs off on.
Under Florida law, DeSantis could choose his own secretary of state once he takes office, but Detzner, the current officeholder, also has suggested that the legislature needs to provide direction “as far as implementation and definitions.” Elections supervisors told TPM that this lack of direction on what to tell would-be voters was the main topic of conversation at their semi-annual conference last week.
Sarah Revell, a spokesperson for Detzner and Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews, did not respond to detailed questions submitted by TPM, but she provided a general response via email.
“Under the Florida Constitution, Amendment 4 will take effect on January 8, 2019,” Revell said in the statement. “The Florida Department of State will abide by any future direction from the Executive Clemency Board or the Florida Legislature regarding necessary action or implementing legislation to ensure full compliance with the law.”
All this talk about the legislature is baffling to elections supervisors and civil rights groups, who say the amendment was designed to be self-executing. The state Supreme Court unanimously approved the amendment’s language as clear and specific, saying voters could understand that the point was to “automatically” restore the affected population’s voting rights.
“I don’t think you need the legislature,” Manatee County election supervisor Mike Bennett told TPM.
A self-described “strong Republican” who tried to enact felon rights restoration during his 12 years in the state Senate, Bennett called himself an “advocate” for Amendment 4. As Bennett noted, the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee won’t have its first meeting until March, and any proposed measures will then have to pass the House, the Senate, and be approved by DeSantis.
“That process will take more time whereas if the secretary of state’s office handled it and came up with the definitions and clarifications, they could do it much faster,” he said.
Republican State Sen. Dennis Baxley, the new chair of the elections committee, insisted the legislature is “not slow-walking this decision by the people of Florida.”
“We’re going to implement it,” Baxley told TPM. “We just want to make sure we do it right so we don’t have confusion. The last thing I want to do is have people go out to register and then start running into barriers.”
Activists behind the amendment say the committee does have an oversight role here, but that any attempts to muck around with implementation language will only muddy clean waters.
“It’s going to create a chilling effect on the process that is unnecessary, counterproductive, and it’s against what Floridians voted for,” Kirk Bailey, political director of the ACLU’s Florida chapter, told TPM.
The state Department of Corrections and county clerks already maintain databases about residents’ criminal convictions and outstanding financial penalties that they share with the Division of Elections.
“There’s no reason why the Division of Elections can’t administratively confirm against their various databases whether or not a person has completed their sentence,” Bailey said. “They can do that right now.”
Elections supervisors looking to the secretary of state for guidance fear that they could share incorrect information with voters, or, worst of all, approve the registration of a voter who hasn’t actually completed all of the terms of their sentence.
“On January 8 people are going to be coming to my office trying to register to vote,” Bennett said. “And I want them to be able to register to vote but I don’t want them to commit another crime accidentally.”
Republican officials from North Carolina to Texas have aggressively pursued cases of dubious voter fraud in recent years. Notably, 43-year-old Texas resident Crystal Mason was sentenced to five years in prison for voting despite her prior felony conviction for filing false tax returns. Mason did not know she was ineligible to vote.
With the state sitting back on its heels, civil rights groups are working overtime to inform newly eligible voters about the details of Amendment 4, and to get them registered to vote.
The powerful coalition of voting rights activists, church leaders, and prison reform advocates who came together during the ballot process are holding voting information and training sessions to keep their members engaged.
“We want to make sure when we’re talking this out that the voices of the returning citizens who are being impacted by Amendment 4 are being heard,” said Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the main group who backed the measure.
Volz, a former Capitol Hill staffer who got caught up in the Abramoff lobbying scandal, said that he plans to go to the elections office in Lee County, where he lives, on January 8. Along with a group of friends, family, and other Floridians with felony convictions, Volz will register to vote.
“I’ll probably make cookies,” he said. “It’s going to be a celebration.”