Florida voters spoke clearly four weeks ago: They restored the right to vote to most convicted felons who complete their sentences.
When it becomes the law in Florida in five weeks, an estimated 1.2 million felons will be eligible to rejoin the voter rolls. But at a statewide elections conference Tuesday, it was obvious that confusion and uncertainty still hover over implementation of Amendment 4.
The state announced that it has stopped transmitting documents counties use to remove convicted felons from the rolls. One official said the issue requires more research on how to carry out the will of the people.
“The state is putting a pause button on our felon identification files,” Division of Elections director Maria Matthews told election supervisors from most of the state’s 67 counties at a mid-winter meeting. “We need this time to research it, to be sure we are providing the appropriate guidance.”
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Matthews said the will of the people is clear: A person who completes their sentence should be able to register to vote, “and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Speaking to reporters, Matthews’ boss, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who reports to Gov. Rick Scott, was emphatic that lawmakers be consulted.
“We need to get some direction from them as far as implementation and definitions — all the kind of things that the supervisors were asking,” Detzner said. “It would be inappropriate for us to charge off without direction from them.”
Counties were not happy.
“They wouldn’t give any direction to us, and they didn’t provide a timeline,” said Polk County elections chief Lori Edwards.
“It’s typical,” said Manatee County Supervisor Mike Bennett of the state’s response, and predicted: “It’s going to hit the fan.”
Hillsborough Supervisor Craig Latimer, who has a Tampa mayoral election coming up, said: “I don’t think we have direction from the state yet. I think that was clear.”
The uncertainty raises the possibility that different counties will interpret Amendment 4 differently, and that could easily trigger lawsuits that raise equal protection issues.
Before Nov. 6, Florida was by far the most populous of four states that permanently strip the right to vote from convicted felons.
The passage of Amendment 4 by nearly two-thirds of voters ends a system implemented by Scott and Cabinet members in 2011 that required felons to wait five years after completing their sentences before they could apply for restoration of their civil rights, including the right to vote.
In Florida, a person who’s convicted of a felony still loses the right to vote. The removal process involves a multitude of agencies from court clerks to the prison system to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the due process safeguards involved take more than four months.
Counties wanted clear direction from the state. But the state’s position is that the Legislature should have a voice — the same Legislature that for decades refused to address the issue of felons’ voting rights, which prompted advocates to collect enough voters’ signatures to force a statewide referendum, bypassing the Legislature.
The legislative session begins March 5 and is scheduled to end May 3. In a further complication, a new governor and secretary of state will soon take office.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the new chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, said the restoration of voting rights “may or may not” need legislative action.
“The question marks are going to come in how do you evaluate eligibility?” Baxley said. “I still have some questions … What were the terms of their sentence? Do they have to meet probation? Did they complete their debt to society or not?”
Several counties surveyed by the Times/Herald Tuesday all said they plan to start registering felons on Jan. 8.
A possible hitch is that the official state voter registration form does not specifically ask applicants if they have completed all terms of their sentences, including probation and restitution, as Amendment 4 specifically requires.
The voter form has a box with this statement: “I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored.”
Said Hillsborough’s Latimer: “When someone checks that box, we take them at their word.”
Monroe County Supervisor Joyce Griffin said she worries that some felons may check the box without realizing they have not yet completed all terms of their sentence, which could lead to yet another felony conviction.
“We’re setting people up. I’m frightful for those people,” Griffin said.
Amendment 4 advocates, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say the Legislature has no role in carrying out the will of voters. Some advocates fear Republicans in the Senate and House will try to make it harder for felons to regain the right to vote.
Liza McClenaghan, Florida state chair of Common Cause, a voter advocacy group, questioned why the state would seemingly impose new road blocks after voters have spoken.
“Why did we have a constitutional amendment in the first place?” she asked. “Because the Legislature wouldn’t deal with the issue. The people took care of that by creating a self-implementing amendment. It’s a curious situation.”