Some Florida officials are balking at the state’s new amendment restoring voting rights to about 1.4 million people with felony records that is set to take effect Tuesday.
Amendment 4, which Florida voters passed in November with nearly 65% support, re-enfranchises felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including probation or parole, but doesn’t apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
Opponents, including Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, say before the amendment can be implemented, the legislature needs to pass a bill to clarify its terms and fulfill its intent. Supporters say it should be implemented immediately. The disagreement is generating confusion and the threat of lawsuits.
The measure produced the largest expansion of voting rights in the U.S. since the 26th Amendment reduced the voting age to 18 in 1971. It could have significant implications in a state where elections often are decided by paper-thin margins.
A Florida ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people with felony records could have a significant impact on the state’s split electorate. WSJ’s Spencer Macnaughton explains. Photo Illustration: Heather Seidel/WSJ
The American Civil Liberties Union, which backed the amendment, says it is self-executing, meaning it takes immediate effect and requires no additional legislation. Newly enfranchised people covered by the measure can begin registering to vote on Tuesday, and state agencies and the legislature are responsible for ensuring the process runs smoothly, it says.
“They’re trying to circumvent the will of the voter by putting up all these roadblocks,” said Melba Pearson, deputy director of the ACLU of Florida. She said the organization is prepared to sue if county or state officials fail to comply with the measure.
Mr. DeSantis, who will be sworn in on Tuesday, has said the amendment isn’t self-executing and requires clarification from the legislature, which convenes in March. That could affect voters hoping to participate in municipal elections scheduled for March.
A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis didn’t respond to requests for comment. The incoming Republican leaders of the Florida House and Senate have said they don’t intend to delay the amendment and will honor the will of voters.
The Florida Department of State, which helps county elections supervisors maintain voter lists, “will abide by any future direction” from the legislature or the state’s clemency board, said spokeswoman Sarah Revell. Meanwhile, she said, the department is pausing its process for notifying local elections officials of people who register to vote who appear to have felony records.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in election law, said she believes the amendment should take effect with no need for more legislation. “To me, this is a no-brainer,” she said.
County elections officials have received no guidance from the state, said Paul Lux, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. He said he expects they will process voter-registration forms as usual, sending them to the state, and await further notice.
Although Mr. Lux sympathizes with amendment supporters who want it to take effect immediately, he said the measure’s language needs clarification, like what it means exactly for felons to complete all terms of their sentences. He predicted legal fights will erupt over people who are wrongly registered, or wrongly denied registration.
“It will all end up going to court,” Mr. Lux said.
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