The language in Amendment 4 is clear: the voting rights of most of Florida’s felons “shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”
Yet questions are swirling about what needs to happen before the amendment takes effect next month and even about what constitutes a completed sentence.
Instead of complicating this straightforward amendment, state officials, lawmakers and county elections supervisors should accept the will of the voters and embrace a smooth registration process for felons who should not have their new voting rights tangled up in red tape.
Approved in November by nearly 65 percent of Florida voters, the constitutional amendment will automatically restore the right to vote for felons who have completed their sentences, excluding those convicted of murder or sex crimes. It could add more than 1 million new voters to the rolls, representing the fourth largest expansion of voting rights in U.S. history.
Not much should have to happen to clear that path, yet Secretary of State Ken Detzner told elections supervisors this week that the Legislature needs to provide “direction” on how to implement the measure. The Legislature refused for decades to act on this issue, leaving Florida one of only three states that permanently disenfranchises anyone with a felony conviction. That inaction is why the issue landed on the ballot following a grass-roots petition drive.
It’s no secret that many in the Republican-dominated Legislature opposed Amendment 4, so Floridians have every reason to be suspicious of “direction’’ that could make it harder for felons to register. Dennis Baxley, the new chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, asked whether those seeking to register have to complete probation and pay their debts. The obvious answer: Yes. It says so in the amendment that “all terms” of a person’s sentence have to be completed. Those could include prison or jail time, fees and court costs, victim restitution and other requirements.
There’s also questions over whether the wording on the state voter registration form needs updating. It currently asks applicants to affirm that “I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored.” Applicants must answer truthfully — just as they must affirm they are U.S. citizens and have not been declared mentally incapacitated. After the amendment takes effect Jan. 8, everyone who has completed their sentence fully can truthfully answer that their right to vote has been restored.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, says the amendment needs clarification and raises some important concerns, especially that felons may try to register to vote without realizing they have an outstanding court fine or other unmet obligation in their sentence. He is considering filing legislation to address that possibility and other issues, including creating a state hotline for felons to call to get basic information about their eligibility.
In the meantime, nothing should prevent those who are eligible from beginning to registering next month. Florida voters have spoken, and any delay in implementing Amendment 4 would violate the Florida Constitution. It would also further disenfranchise real people in Tampa and Plant City, where municipal elections are set for next spring. Every eligible should be able to vote in those local elections -- including felons who have fulfilled all of the requirements of their sentences.
This editorial was first published by the Tampa Bay Times.