Ex-felons celebrate Amendment 4, which restores their voting rights
Hundreds of former felons celebrated on the steps of the state Capitol Tuesday, more than four months after Florida voters passed Amendment 4, a ballot measure that is estimated to restore voting rights to more than 1.2 million residents.
Yet inside the Capitol, lawmakers may soon spark another fight over who gets to vote — this time over the definition of “murder.”
This is unwelcome news for about 500 people who arrived Tuesday with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Amendment 4 ostensibly allows most ex-felons to register to vote as soon as they complete their sentence, so long as they are not guilty of murder or a felony sex crime. The law took effect Jan. 8, and elections officials registered new voters in droves in the following days.
“No more ‘ex-felons,’ no more names … it’s time for these labels to fall off,” said Marilyn Walker, 54, who owns a gift shop in Homestead and was convicted of fraud in 2000. “It’s time for people to be made whole.”
But since November, Republican lawmakers have talked about bringing legislation to clarify the law. Now, that clarification is coming in the form of a soon-to-be-filed bill. And one of the key senators on the committee drafting that bill says he wants to make attempted murder a disqualifying offense.
“The question is, ‘What does it include?’ ” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “Obviously murder — first degree, second degree — to me, that means attempted murder, because there’s intent.”
But that’s an interpretation Amendment 4 supporters consider too broad.
“I don’t think attempted murder is written anywhere within our constitutional language,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Council, which sponsored the Amendment 4 campaign with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Kirk Bailey, the political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the amendment is “clear and unambiguous.” The murder exception should apply to the crimes listed under the state’s murder statute — first- and second-degree murder — but not attempted murder, he said.
After a panel discussion in St. Petersburg in January, Bailey told a reporter plainly, “Attempted murder is not murder.”
To make it on the ballot, an amendment must go before Florida’s Supreme Court, which determines that its title and summary are not misleading, which Meade said is proof that it passed the clarity test.
Brandes also brought up whether completing a sentence involves paying off all fees, such as administrative filing costs, or only those costs, such as paying restitution, that are part of the sentence.
On that at least, Brandes and the Florida Rights Restoration Council agree that only those costs associated with the sentence should be required.
Already, 53,135 voters registered in January. That’s up from 44,396 in the same month in 2018 and 33,835 in 2017.
A Tampa Bay Times analysis in 2018 found that voters removed from the roles for felony convictions tended to be black men. Those registering to vote this year provide further evidence of the racial and gender disparity of those most affected by Amendment 4.
Black men make up just 5.5 percent of registered voters in Florida, but their share of those registering since Jan. 8 grew to 9.9 percent. Overall, Florida’s adult population is about 7 percent black men.
From 2017 to 2019, January registrations in the 10 counties where black voters make up the highest shares of the electorate nearly doubled, increasing by 94 percent. In the 10 where they make up the smallest shares, registrations increased by 39 percent.