The people have spoken and Amendment 4 has passed. Will the state stall on its implementation?
Just hours after county election supervisors meeting this week in Sarasota asked for a directive from the state on how to implement Amendment 4 — the recently passed ballot initiative that automatically restores voting right for felons who’ve completed their sentences — another group across town was busy strategizing on how to forge ahead with registering “returning citizens” the moment the new amendment legally takes effect.
“Our current belief is that the amendment is self-executing,” Kirk Bailey, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told about 50 activists at the Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center, many of whom had previously gathered petition signatures for the initiative. “Basically, this should be an administrative matter for the Secretary of State, the Division of Elections and the Supervisor of Elections.”
Because there is no effective date stated within the initiative, because the election result is already certified (the measure drew approval from 64.5 percent of Floridian voters) and because no ratification is required, the change should take effect, per state law, on “the first Tuesday after the first Monday in January,” without any further legislative action, Bailey maintained.
“At least theoretically, because we have online voter registration, if the person has completed any and all obligations — probation and parole — they could register online at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 8,” he said.
Voter registration forms pose just two questions: Are you a citizen? And, do you have a felony conviction and have your rights been restored? Neither requires written documentation as proof, Bailey said. Therefore, the ACLU believes individuals who have completed any and all obligations related to their felonies — including probation, parole and restitution — may assume their rights have been restored as of Jan. 8.
However, neither Bailey nor Demetrius Jifunza, a former felon and founder of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition who also spoke at the gathering, is naïve enough to imagine it will be smooth sailing in the new year. Both said they fully expect challenges to immediate enfranchisement and efforts to stall implementation after Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis is sworn into office on January 8, and the Republican-dominant Legislature convenes on March 5.
That stalling may already be happening. According to Herald-Tribune political reporter Zac Anderson, at Tuesday’s Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections conference at the Westin hotel, Manatee County’s supervisor, Mike Bennett, requested a written directive from the state on how to proceed with implementation, but Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews was noncommittal in her response.
Matthews told the gathered supervisors that her agency — which reviews voters’ criminal records for eligibility — has already temporarily suspended that process. Spokeswoman Sarah Revell confirmed that felony matches the department receives will not be forwarded to local supervisors, at least for the time being. That drew pushback from several supervisors, including Monroe County’s Joyce Griffin, who offered that, in that case, she would feel justified pausing her own review process of voters flagged for removal from the rolls.
Bailey said he is confident county election supervisors are committed to making sure anyone who is eligible is allowed to register and are simply looking for confirmation from the state of the appropriate process.
“My impression is, the supervisors of elections want a smooth, streamlined registration process as much as we do,” Bailey said. “But we are at risk of folks trying to slow things down, in a variety of nefarious ways.”
Challenges could also come in the form of differing interpretations of “completion of sentence,” Bailey said, and questions about whether that includes payment of every ancillary fee that may have accumulated during an offender’s entire incarceration and probation.
“If there is going to be litigation, it is likely to be around that point,” said Bailey, who added that there has been discussion of creating a fund to help former offenders, many of whom are financially struggling, pay off fees and fines that remain due.
Difunza, who was convicted of a felony after being involved in a robbery 23 years ago at the age of 17 when he got behind the wheel of a car with friends who hadn’t told him they were planning to commit a crime, is worried the GOP-run Legislature may also try to alter who is eligible for restoration, or how much time they need to have served. Currently, only those who have committed murders or sex crimes are excluded from the possibility of restoration.
“If we really want to change Florida, we have to stay in the fight,” he said, noting Amendment 4 only restores only a former felon’s voting rights, not the right to run for or hold public office. “The next step is the restoration of all our civil rights.”
To that end, Jifunza told the advocates, their work must involve more than just getting returning citizens who are eligible to fill out voter registration forms. After that must come educating the newly-enfranchised on the election process, ascertaining the issues important to them, encouraging their sustained involvement in the social and political action network and making sure they get to the polls on Election Day.
“We don’t want them just voting and not knowing what they’re voting on,” said Difunza, a pastor, paralegal and father of three who is working on a graduate degree in mental health care. “With every signature you get, you are accountable for the education of that individual.”
As much as he looks forward to being able to vote, Difunza understands that with the privilege comes great responsibility and a personal obligation to follow through.
“When it comes to registering, we want to be treated just like the person who has not had a felony,” he said. “And once I’ve been given a voice, I want to be held accountable as if I’d never been a felon at all.”
Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carrieseidman and Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.