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The Fight For Voting in Florida Isn’t Over

Now we need to make sure the newly enfranchised exercise their right to vote

November 8, 2018

By now you know that Florida’s democracy took a huge step forward Tuesday when voters approved a measure to re-enfranchise people with past convictions who have completed all the terms of their sentence. 

But the fight doesn’t end here. For the win to really make a difference, we need an energetic outreach campaign targeted at the roughly 1.4 million Floridians whose rights were restored by Amendment 4. 

That may be especially true for this newly empowered group of citizens. According to Dr. Amy Lerman, who studies the impact of the criminal justice system on democracy, people who are disenfranchised can understandably lose faith in the political process altogether. Her work, to over-simpify it a little, found democratic participation goes down as negative interactions with the criminal justice system go up.

“What we find is that felon disenfranchisement is just the tip of a much larger iceberg. People become less trusting of government — become actually quite wary of government — so they don’t want to participate,” Lerman has said.

Of course, lots of people affected by Amendment 4 do want to participate, as shown by the inspiring grassroots campaign that was led by people with past convictions. 

Voting isn’t complicated. But some of the newly enfranchised may need outreach on how the process works: how to register, what ID is needed, what to do to vote by mail, and so on.

And just like other eligible voters, those with newly restored voting rights need to participate in elections to have their franchise matter. Voter turnout in Florida in 2018 was 58 percent, which was way up from 51 percent in 2014. Another bright spot was turnout was up in every county in the state. But it still means a good 40 percent of eligible voters sat on their hands and didn’t engage. 

And for those who are counting on a blue wave from Amendment 4, slow down. For one, not all people with a criminal conviction have the same views. Moreover, as Business Insider noted, those with past convictions typically vote at lower rates that the average voter population, likely because of the kind of factors Lerman cites.

One study found around 35 percent of disenfranchised ex-felons would have voted in presidential elections and 24 percent in Senate elections in non-presidential years. Another looked at Iowa, Maine, and Rhode Island, and found that fewer than 15 percent of recently enfranchised ex-felons voted in those states. That’s well below the national turnout rate of 58.6 percent in 2016. 

Part of the issue is that people who have been recently re-enfranchised need to know about it. Back in 2008 when Charlie Crist was Florida’s governor he re-enfranchised about 112,000 people. But then only 9,000 of those eligible to vote actually registered to vote because many did not realize that their status had changed. When Alabama last year changed its law to re-enfranchise some ex-offenders, the state refused to spend money on a public education campaign or a notification system. It’s important that Florida does much better. 

So make no mistake: This is a sweet victory for supporters of Amendment 4. More people than live in the entire state of Wyoming, or for that matter, the entire population of Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, North Dakota, Alaska, the District of Columbia, or Vermont were just re-enfranchised. It’s a huge win for democracy and a “no thank you” to Jim Crow, where the ban had its roots. But the work of integrating newly enfranchised Florida citizens is just beginning.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.