clock menu more-arrow no yes

Would ex-felon voting rights have flipped Florida for Democrats? It’s possible.

Amendment 4 restored voting rights for people with felony records. That could have flipped the state.

Voters go to the polls in the Florida primary. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida voted on Tuesday to approve a constitutional amendment that will restore voting rights to more than 1 million people with felony records. The state also appears narrowly set to send Republicans to the governor’s mansion and the US Senate — both major upsets for Democrats.

The results have led to a question: What if people convicted of felonies, covered under the newly passed Amendment 4, had voting rights for this election? Could they have tipped the election in Democrats’ favor?

The answer is, well, maybe. The best estimates so far suggest that implementing Amendment 4 really could have helped Democrats this year — but the numbers are close enough, and the calculations uncertain enough, that it could have gone either way.

Florida was one of three states (now two) that don’t let people convicted of felonies vote even after they completed their sentences. As a result, Florida had disenfranchised more people due to felony records than any other state, due to its strict law and relatively large population.

This particularly affected black Floridians. Because black people are disproportionately likely to be arrested and incarcerated, they’re disproportionately represented in the disenfranchised population. Although 9.2 percent of the voting-age population in Florida was disenfranchised by the state law and now won’t be under Amendment 4, 17.9 percent of the black voting-age population was, based on the Sentencing Project’s 2016 estimates.

Black people are also more likely to vote for Democrats.

The question now is how big the effect of Amendment 4 might be. Even though black people are disproportionately represented, they’re also still a minority — about 28 percent — of those who got their voting rights back. So it may not be as favorable for Democrats as one would think.

Amendment 4 gives voting rights back to people with felony records who have completed their sentences, although it excludes anyone convicted of murder or felony sex offenses. That amounts to around 1.4 million people in Florida. But not everyone whose right to vote is restored ends up registering or ultimately voting; in fact, most don’t appear to vote in the end.

Studies on how many of them eventually might vote, and how they’ll vote, are by no means conclusive. But Marc Meredith at the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Morse at Yale and Harvard have done some work trying to calculate exactly how much different parties would benefit as a result of Amendment 4. Referencing research that extrapolated numbers based on previous enfranchisement efforts for people convicted of felonies in Florida, Meredith and Morse wrote for Vox:

Had all ex-felons been eligible to vote in Florida in 2016, we estimate that this would have generated about 102,000 additional votes for Democrats and about 54,000 additional votes for Republicans, with about an additional 40,000 votes that could be cast on behalf of either party.

That adds up to about 48,000 votes on net for Democrats.

That has some caveats. It’s an estimate based on historical enfranchisement efforts, so it could be off. The real figure may be lower or higher; we just don’t know. It’s also based on 2016 numbers, which are, due to higher general turnout, likely higher than the 2018 figures. And the way that those 40,000 independents flip could greatly diminish Democratic gains.

Still, in a state where elections can be so close, it’s a significant Democratic gain — enough, perhaps, to have flipped Florida to Democrats this time around.

With almost all precincts now reporting, Republican Rick Scott leads Democrat Bill Nelson in the Senate race by around 30,000 votes. In the governor’s race, Republican Ron DeSantis leads Democrat Andrew Gillum by less than 51,000 votes.

The Senate race is coming in within the 48,000 margin estimated by Meredith and Morse, and the governor’s race isn’t too far off. Still, both are pretty close — so close that I’m not 100 percent confident saying which way either race would have gone had Amendment 4 already been in effect.

But it creates a real possibility for Democrats: If Florida had passed Amendment 4 earlier, it’s possible that they would have been looking at very different results in Florida last night. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that Scott and DeSantis were two of the leading opponents of Amendment 4.