Editor’s note: We first published this article on December 19, 2018. Today, 1.4 million Florida felons who are newly eligible to vote can begin registering. But that doesn’t mean they will.
The 1.4 million number was always high.
That frequently cited figure accounted for all of the Floridians with felony convictions who could possibly have their voting rights restored under Amendment 4, a constitutional ballot amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in the November midterms.
We’re now seeing troubling efforts from top state elections officials to slow-roll the reinfranchisement process, providing no guidance to elections supervisors and trying to get the GOP-controlled legislature involved. But notwithstanding that depressingly predictable development, other states have already showed us the complications that arise in actually getting former felons registered and out to the polls.
Everything from a lack of information and fear of violating election laws to lack of motivation or simple poverty can explain why tens of thousands of former felons in Florida won’t actually end up voting.
Blair Bowie of the Campaign Legal Center is intimately familiar with these roadblocks. Since June, Bowie has been crisscrossing Alabama working to educate and register voters about a change in state law slashing the number of “moral turpitude” crimes that once prohibited violators from voting.
Republican Secretary of State John Merill announced he would not devote any resources to informing people about the new policy, so the CLC has given one-on-one voter enrollment service to 1,600 people and trained 1,500 community leaders in how to do this work. Bowie said their efforts have only been a drop in the bucket.
Citing a study from Montgomery non-profit Alabama Appleseed, Bowie said that some 72 percent of people affected didn’t know the law had changed.
“That means tens of thousands of people who were reenfranchised have no idea there’s even the possibility of them being reenfranchised,” she said. “They’re not even looking into the possibility that the law change could apply to them.”
“If the state is just completely inactive in doing public education, the lesson from Alabama is that not everyone who has been reenfranchised is going to know about it,” Bowie said. “So if [Florida] just sit[s] back and say[s] we’re just going to let what happened happen, that will hurt a lot of people.”
Charles Zelden, an elections expert at Florida’s Nova Southeastern University, reminded TPM that Florida is a “low-tax, low-service state” unlikely to “take a strong stance in leadership on this.”
“It’s going to be up to private agencies, NGOs to take the lead in getting people registered,” Zelden said.
Zelden also brought up another major deterrent — both nationally and in Florida specifically — for former felons who may actually know about the change in policy and want to vote: money. Felony convictions make it harder to find housing and decent-paying jobs, which, in turn, make it harder for people to pay off all of the financial penalties associated with their court appearances and sentencing. Under Amendment 4, almost all financial costs related to a person’s sentence must be paid off before the individual is legally allowed to register.
“There are a bunch of people who simply can’t get clean with the state because of financial reasons,” Zelden said.
The national Republican crusade against the specter of voter fraud has also spooked former felons from casting ballots — or ended in heartbreaking consequences. In Texas, Crystal Mason is serving five years for voting in the 2016 election without knowing that her felony record for tax crimes rendered her ineligible.
Bad information from elections officials and overburdened clerks’ offices failing to confirm that an individual has completed all the requirements under Amendment 4 put people at risk of accruing another felony charge for exercising their voting rights. Stories like Mason’s make them feel it’s not worth the effort to try.
“If someone accidentally registers or tries to vote, that can become an opportunity for voter suppression if there are malicious election officials or district attorneys,” Bowie said. “And that can scare a lot of people away — if there’s no education but there is this kind of rumor out there that you could get in trouble.”
Despite this litany of serious concerns, everything is not as bleak as it appears. The groups behind the ballot measure created a statewide, bipartisan coalition with real clout. They have managed to gain sustained national media attention and are already working to address the roadblocks the state is tossing up. The state ACLU chapter and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) have discussed creating a fund to help former felons pay off their fines, for example.
“We believe that there’s real power in the community staying unified,” FRRC political director Neil Volz told TPM.
And while restoring the civil rights of all 1.4 million deserving Floridians is the real point of the amendment, the smaller subset who do vote can still have a real impact on the outcome of the swing state’s races.
After all, Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott won their races by a margin of under 40,000 ballots.
“They’ll have an impact beyond their numbers,” Zelden said. “If the race is close, their votes can be the difference between winning and losing. You don’t need 1.5 million felons to vote and participate for them to make a difference in the outcomes of elections in Florida.”
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