Kaid Ray-Tipton, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
The 2018 midterm elections introduced many justice reform initiatives on ballots around the United States. Nearly 70 percent of constituents in Florida voted to approve Amendment 4, which automatically restored voting rights to people with felony convictions who have completed their sentence and probation or parole. Many of the 1.4 million formerly disenfranchised residents of Florida now have their voting rights restored. However, there is one caveat of Amendment 4 that is newly outlined in the Florida Constitution: “No person convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense shall be qualified to vote until restoration of civil rights.” Consequently, this amendment makes it much more difficult for the population of people who are convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense in Florida to ever vote again, despite the fact that they have served their time.
The United States is the only modern democracy that disenfranchises individuals with conviction histories, including those convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses. Furthermore, only 12 U.S. states restrict voting rights to any degree after sentence completion. In states such as Maine and Vermont, people who have felonies never lose the right to vote, regardless of the severity of their crime. While the passage of Amendment 4 moves the state closer to adherence with criminal justice practices of other states, it explicitly excludes a portion of the population of formerly incarcerated people.
Advancing Amendment 4
Amendment 4 addresses the state clemency rule implemented in 2011, which effectively barred citizens with a felony conviction from voting. Floridians for a Fair Democracy, Inc. kicked-off their petition campaign in the fall of 2014 with the intention of restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions. Desmond Meade, chair of the organization, argued that “once a person has served their time, they should not be made to continue paying for their past mistakes.”
The effort intentionally did not extend to people perceived as violent, however; from the start of the petition process, it was clear to Meade that voters would be less inclined to approve of the petition if it included restoration of voting rights for individuals convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. Ultimately, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, Inc. gained over 840,000 signatures by 2018, well over the 700,000 signatures required to put the petition on the ballot. Florida voters approved Amendment 4, with over 5 million people voting in favor and nearly 3 million voting against.
Potential Consequences of Continued Disenfranchisement
While the passage of Amendment 4 benefits more than 1 million people, those who are convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense will not regain their voting rights. In order to vote, they will have to apply for restoration of civil rights under the same procedures that have been in place since 2011. This process is lengthy, requiring individuals to wait until five years after the completion of their state supervision to utilize the application for clemency. This application is then reviewed by the Clemency Board that consists of the governor and members of the cabinet. The Clemency Board wields complete autonomy to grant clemency on civil rights or to deny them; if denied, individuals must wait two more years before reapplying.
Now that Amendment 4 has been adopted into the Florida Constitution, automatic voter restoration for those who have completed their sentences and were convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses is out of reach. There are four ways to amend the Florida Constitution: joint resolution of the Florida Legislature, citizens’ initiative process, the Constitutional Revision Commission, or the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. According to Article XI, Section 5(e) of the Florida Constitution, proposed amendments must be approved by 60 percent of voters.
Further, while Amendment 4 goes a long way towards fostering a more representative democracy in Florida, low voter turnout in communities with higher felony conviction rates remains a concern. As a result, these communities may elect officials who do not represent the ideals of the entire constituency. Additionally, there is some evidence that when children in the community or household do not see adults voting on election day—or perhaps see adults who are not allowed to vote—it creates a generational civic disengagement. The diminishing electoral power for subsequent generations could be detrimental to communities that are already experiencing other impacts of incarceration.
Amendment 4 has restored voting rights to approximately one million people within Florida. However, the amendment also makes it much more difficult for the population of people who are convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense to ever vote again, despite the fact that they have served their time. To adhere to the principles of democracy, voters in Florida should look to give all another chance.