This November, Floridians will have a chance to vote on Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative. This initiative, launched by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, seeks to automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, excluding those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon the completion of their sentences (including prison, parole, and probation).
Currently, Florida is one of four states where convicted felons never regain their right to vote, until and unless a state officer or board restores an individual’s voting rights. Under Governor Rick Scott’s current system, those with prior felony convictions must wait anywhere from 5 to 7 years after the completion of their sentence to request that the board consider restoring their voting rights. Recently, a federal judge ordered Governor Scott to create a new system for the rights restoration process, which must be completed by April 26. However, this does not mandate that former felons must have their rights restored.
This Voting Rights Restoration movement garnered the 766,200 signatures needed for the initiative to make it to the ballot in November, and as of early March, Floridians for a Fair Democracy has raised $5.35 million to support the initiative.
So what does this mean for Florida? Well, in Florida, nearly 1.5 million people are permanently excluded from voting, and the passing of this amendment could mean that as much as 10% of the population could be able to vote that formerly wasn’t able to. In a swing state like Florida, that would be more than enough votes to swing an election one way or another.
One study estimates that the turnout of former felons would be around 35%, however some states that have restored voting rights have seen turnout as low as 10%.
It is unknown whether Florida’s population of former felons are more likely to vote as Democrats or Republicans, as studies have shown that former felons are most likely to vote the same way as populations similar to them, either by race, age, or gender. Generally, scholars agree that felon disenfranchisement hurts Democrats, as approximately 40% of inmates are African American, a demographic which tends to be Democratic voters. However, in Florida, the issue is more complex, since many of the felons in Florida are white males. In the 2000 election, for example, scholars are conflicting over whether the disenfranchised voters would have voted Democratic. Some argue that allowing former felons to vote would have been sufficient to swing the election to Gore, while others argue that the population of many white men would have maintained the election in Bush’s favor.
While it is not clear exactly how allowing former felons to vote in Florida would affect our elections or the future of our state, the State of Florida has some big decisions to make regarding how we allow former felons to vote. Our current felon rights restoration program has been found unconstitutional, and whether through the passing of Amendment 4 or through the the creation of a different restoration system, we will be seeing a change in how Florida handles felon disenfranchisement in the coming year.