Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Florida
A summary of current felony disenfranchisement policies and legislative advocacy in Florida.
On November 6, 2018 Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment automatically restoring the right to vote to 1.4 million individuals with felony convictions in their past. The amendment restores the right to vote for people with felony convictions, except individuals convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, once they have completed the terms of their sentence, including probation and parole. The amendment went into effect on January 8, 2019.
In March 2019, Florida lawmakers introduced bills that would restrict the eligibility of some Floridians who had been re-enfranchised by Amendment 4. The Brennan Center sent letters to both House and Senate lawmakers, opposing the bills because they flout the will of Florida voters and create administratively unworkable carve outs. Since then, the bills have been amended, but both bills still conflict with Amendment 4. The House bill (HB 7089) would expand the definition of felony sexual offense, and redefine “term of sentence” to include monetary obligations even after a court has determined that they should be converted from criminal penalties to civil liens. The Senate version (SB 7086) would expand the definition of murder and redefine “term of sentence” to include restitution even after it has been converted from a criminal penalty to a civil lien. As of April 11, both bills remain active.
This decision cleared the way for the ballot initiative to appear on the ballot once the initiative’s supporters collected enough signatures.
On January 23, 2018 Floridians for a Fair Democracy announced that their campaign, Florida Second Chances, had surpassed the 766,200 signature threshold to get Amendment 4 on the 2018 ballot. For the next 10 months, the campaign worked to build a massive groundswell of bipartisan support that culminated in the Amendment’s passage on November 6, 2018.
For many years, Florida’s harshest-in-the-nation disenfranchisement policy has received attention from policymakers and advocates alike.
On February 1, 2018 a federal district court judge in Tallahassee ruled that the “unfettered discretion that the [Florida] Clemency Board possesses” violates both the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The case – Hand v. Scott – is a class action lawsuit filed last March by the Fair Elections Legal Network. A copy of the opinion can be found here. The case was on appeal awaiting a ruling by the Eleventh Circuit when Amendment 4 passed.
In March 2011, Gov. Scott eliminated Gov. Crist’s reforms and created additional barriers for people seeking to have their voting rights restored. The Brennan Center and other national civil rights organizations strongly opposed the plan in a joint letter to the Florida Clemency Board. The American Probation and Parole Association also submitted its own letter encouraging the Board to maintain Gov. Crist’s clemency reforms.
In April 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist took an incremental step towards reform when he issued revised rules of executive clemency. Notably, this change created automatic rights restoration for people completing sentences for certain felony convictions. A year later, in 2008, Gov. Crist’s office announced that over 115,000 Floridians had regained voting rights since the new rules were implemented.
In 2000, the Brennan Center and co-counsel, representing more than 600,000 citizens, filed a lawsuit – Johnson v. Bush – that challenged Florida’s permanent disenfranchisement constitutional provision. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, ultimately allowed the law to stand.