About the only thing worse than making a mess is making a mess unnecessarily.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the last throes of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration.
According to reports, it appears Florida elections officials don’t have a plan for how to carry out a constitutional amendment that restores the right to vote to about 1.5 million Floridians convicted of felonies. At least, that’s what state Division of Elections director Maria Matthews told county elections supervisors last Tuesday.
Amendment 4, approved by nearly 65 percent of voters last month, “automatically” restores voting rights for convicted felons who have completed their sentences, paid restitution and court costs and fulfilled probation requirements. The amendment, which goes into effect Jan. 8, excludes murderers and felony sex offenders.
“The state is putting a pause button on felon identification files,” Matthews told supervisors gathered at the Westin hotel in Sarasota for a winter conference, referring to lists sent to county elections officials that flag people who are ineligible to vote.
Matthews said the state has about 30 days before the amendment goes into effect. Among the many issues at play are definitions in the amendment, such as when a “sentence” is completed, she pointed out. Sentences can be converted to “civil judgments,” Matthews said.
“That’s why we need this time to research it and make sure that we are providing the appropriate guidance as to what do these terms mean and how to implement the will of the people, which was their intent that, if someone has completed their sentence, that they should be able to register to vote. And that’s what we’re going to do,” Matthews said.
But here’s the thing: it’s not necessary.
RELATED: Election 2018: Florida takes an historic step on felons’ voter rights
As we said in our Nov. 18 editorial noting the historic passage of Amendment 4, the Florida Constitution, Article VI, Section 4, will now state that ‘voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.’
“Beginning Jan. 8, any former felon who has completed all the terms of their sentence should be able to register to vote by affirming that their rights have been restored (Question #2 on the state’s Voter Registration Application) the same way they affirm that they are U.S. citizens (Question #1), according to the American Civil Liberties Union.”
That means the amendment’s language is “self-executing” or that “no legislation is necessary,” says Howard Simon, who just finished a storied career as head of the ACLU in Florida.
In fact, Simon told the Post Editorial Board, the ACLU worked with closely with former Florida House Speaker and University of Florida Law School Dean Emeritus Jon L. Mills to help craft the amendment’s language for just this reason — to avoid leaving its interpretation and implementation at the whim of a Republican-controlled Florida Legislature that could care less about restoring felons’ voter rights, and a governor and Cabinet (acting as the Executive Clemency Board) that de facto suppressed those rights with a joke of a restoration process.
But here we are anyway, because Secretary of State Ken Detzner — who reports to Scott and whose department oversees statewide elections — won’t do his job.
This doesn’t have to be so messy.
State elections officials currently send lists of people who have been convicted of felonies to county supervisors, who then remove them from the voting rolls. County officials are hoping the state will expand that process to identify people who have been convicted of felonies but who are eligible to vote under the amendment.
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The new system should involve “one more step” for Matthews’ agency, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer said.
“They need to verify that a person has completed all the terms of their probation — fines, restitution, whatever it is — and then that would be a green light,” Latimer told the News Service of Florida last week. “It just seems to me they need to change a little bit of their process.”
Matthews repeatedly pointed out that voters now must affirm that they are eligible to vote when they fill out registration forms.
“That is no different. That doesn’t change,” after the amendment goes into effect next month, she said.
Then why bother with a disinterested Legislature or Cabinet?
Bottom line: If elections officials haven’t cleaned this up by January 8, we can all expect this to get a whole lot messier when a frustrated former felon goes into their local elections office that day to register.