In Florida, felons regain their right to vote

On Nov. 6, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, a measure restoring the voting rights of felons who have served their sentences. "Every community is impacted by this," says Neil Volz of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. 

Wilfredo Lee/AP/File
People gather around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4 and eat free ice cream at Charles Hadley Park in Miami. With a single vote on Nov. 6, 2018, Florida passed Amendment 4 and added 1.4 million possible voters to the rolls.

Florida added 1.4 million possible voters to the rolls when it passed Amendment 4, a measure restoring the voting rights of felons who have served their sentences. But whether those people register to vote – and which political party they ultimately support – remains to be seen.

"The battle for the hearts and minds for those 1.4 million voters has officially begun," said Neil Volz of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

He said about a third of the 1.4 million people affected are African-American. The largest percentage of disenfranchised felons is white, he said.

"Every community is impacted by this," Mr. Volz said.

Studies have shown disenfranchisement tends to take more votes from Democratic candidates. Restoration of voting rights for felons in Florida has traditionally been something that Democrats have pushed for and Republicans have resisted, but in today's topsy-turvy political climate, it's unclear what will happen when felons who qualify are able to register to vote on Jan. 8.

"People speculate about the party affiliations, but it's not such a simple thing to gauge," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a group that pushes for sentencing reform.

He noted that a "significant number" of people who cast ballots for Republicans Rick Scott in the Senate race and Ron DeSantis in the governor's race, also voted for Amendment 4.

The issue had widespread support from groups ranging from the NAACP to the Christian Coalition and the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"We won a lot of independent voters and Republican voters," said Howard Simon, Florida director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "You have to focus on not how many votes we got, but the breadth of support."

Convicted sex offenders and those convicted of murder will not be allowed to register to vote. The measure needed 60 percent of the vote on Nov. 6 to pass; it received 64 percent.

"This was not a political vote. It was a vote of love," said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the nonprofit group that organized the drive to put the amendment change on the ballot.

Supporters said the state's current system was too difficult and arbitrary. It required felons to wait at least five years after completing their sentence before they could file a request with the governor and Cabinet – who then considered the requests individually.

Florida has long been considered "ground zero" for disenfranchised felons by voting rights groups.

Of the 6.1 million disenfranchised felons in the U.S., about 1.7 million live in Florida – the most of any state, Mr. Mauer said. Only 12 states disenfranchise people for a felony conviction after they've served their sentence, he said.

"I'm thrilled that the people of Florida finally brought the state out of the 19th century and into the 21st century," Mr. Simon said.

After Jan. 8, the next hurdle will be persuading folks to register to vote.

"The idea that we're suddenly going to have 10 percent more registered voters by 2020 is fanciful," said Dan Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida. "Let's say these people do get registered to vote, then they need to turn out to vote. As we saw with the turnout yesterday, turnout was up, but it wasn't up uniformly."

For Coral Nichols, from Seminole, Florida, she'll register as soon as possible. She was convicted of felony grand theft at 23, served four years in prison, and completed 10 years of probation. She now co-owns a nonprofit that helps people facing charges with diversion programs.

"I am a changed individual. I'm not that girl anymore," she said. "I deserve a second chance. In 2020, I'm going to get to vote."

Ms. Nichols said she doesn't know enough to support any particular politician, but will likely register as a Republican.

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

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