People with felony records will be able to register to vote in Florida for the first time starting Tuesday, thanks to a ballot initiative approved by voters in the 2018 midterm elections.
Florida’s Amendment 4 restores voting rights for people in the state convicted of felonies as long as they have completed their sentences. Anyone convicted of murder or felony sex offenses is excluded.
Based on the Sentencing Project’s 2016 estimates, this benefits more than a million people. The organization estimated in 2016 that nearly 1.5 million people in Florida have completed felony sentences but can’t vote — about 9.2 percent of the voting-age population in Florida. The total, though, includes some people convicted of murder and felony sex offenses, so not every one of those people benefits under Amendment 4.
Black people, who are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated, will benefit the most. In 2016, more than 418,000 people out of a black voting-age population of more than 2.3 million, or 17.9 percent of potential black voters in Florida, had finished sentences but couldn’t vote due to a felony record, according to the Sentencing Project. (Again, this includes some people convicted of murders and felony sex offenses.)
The amendment was officially supported by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which gathered more than 1.1 million petitions to put it on the ballot. It received bipartisan endorsements from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Koch brothers–backed Freedom Partners.
Most states have at least some voting restrictions for people convicted of felonies. Most often, the law bars people who are currently in prison from voting. Some prohibit voting until a person finishes parole or probation too.
Florida, however, barred people from voting even after they’ve completed their sentences. Only two other states — Kentucky and Iowa — currently do this. (Virginia technically does as well under its Constitution, but former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and current Gov. Ralph Northam, both Democrats, have used their executive powers to restore voting rights to those convicted of felonies.)
Only Maine and Vermont let people vote regardless of their criminal record, which means that people in the two states can even vote from prison.
Courts, including the US Supreme Court, have generally upheld such voting restrictions under the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which indicates that the government may abridge the right to vote due to “participation in rebellion, or other crime.”
In Florida, there was a process in place for getting voting rights restored. But the process, set up by Republican former Gov. Rick Scott, was very arduous. It required people to wait as long as seven years to apply, and the application review itself could take several additional years. Even after someone applied, restoration of voting rights was far from guaranteed: According to the Florida Commission on Offender Review, only 3,005 of more than 30,000 applicants had their voting rights restored through the system since Scott implemented it as of last October.
As a result, Florida had disenfranchised more potential voters than any other state, with more than 10 percent of all potential voters and more than 21 percent of potential black voters in Florida unable to vote due to felony records.
With Amendment 4 taking effect, that will now change — and more than 1 million people will regain the right to vote.