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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Florida

A summary of current felony disenfranchisement policies and legislative advocacy in Florida.

Last Updated: September 11, 2020
Published: May 31, 2019

Disenfranchisement in Florida

In 2018, nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which automatically restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million Floridians, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, who had completed the terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.

On June 28, 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066, prohibiting returning citizens from voting unless they pay off all legal financial obligations (LFOs) imposed by a court pursuant to a felony conviction, including LFOs converted to civil obligations, even if they cannot afford to pay.

The Brennan Center and other civil rights groups filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the law, and our suit was consolidated with similar cases filed by others. An expert report submitted to the court showed that the law’s requirements would prevent at least 770,000 people from voting — and it would hit Black Floridians the hardest. The court found that the overwhelming majority of those impacted are unable to afford to pay what they owe. Moreover, the State does not reliably or consistently track data on what people owe, so it is often impossible to make eligibility determinations.

On May 24, 2020, the federal court issued a ruling finding Florida’s “pay-to-vote” system unconstitutional in part. The State appealed, and the Eleventh Circuit agreed to hear the case and it stayed the district court’s order until it rules. Arguments were heard in the appeal on August 18, 2020. On September 11, 2020, the en banc Eleventh Circuit issued an order reversing and vacating the district court's ruling. More information about this ongoing litigation can be found here.

The History of Amendment 4

Prior to Amendment 4, Florida’s constitution permanently disenfranchised all citizens who had been convicted of any felony offense unless the Clemency Board restored their voting rights – a process that will now apply to those who have not had their rights restored by Amendment 4, including anyone convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of disenfranchised Floridians grew by nearly 150,000 to an estimated total of 1,686,000. In 2016, more than one in five of Florida’s Black voting-age population was disenfranchised.

After years of advocating for change with the courts and governors’ offices, the Brennan Center joined with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and others to draft Amendment 4 and push for its inclusion on the 2018 ballot.

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. Amendment 4 went into effect on January 8, 2019.

For more information about applying for clemency, the Clemency Board’s website can be accessed here.

Rights Restoration Developments Before Amendment 4

Litigation

In 2000, the Brennan Center and co-counsel, representing more than 600,000 citizens, filed a lawsuit – Johnson v. Bush – challenging Florida’s permanent disenfranchisement constitutional provision under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2005, despite evidence that Florida’s constitutional provision was rooted in 19th-century efforts to evade the mandate of the Fifteenth Amendment and deny Black men the right to vote, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the law to stand.

Executive Actions

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 March 2011, then-Gov. Rick 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 Clemency Board. The American Probation and Parole Association also submitted its own letter encouraging the Board to maintain Gov. Crist’s clemency reforms. The Governor’s regressive move set the stage for the effort to ultimately pass Amendment 4 years later.

Brennan Center Materials

  • Restoring the Right to Vote, Erika Wood (2009) The Brennan Center’s policy proposal for restoring voting rights for citizens with past criminal convictions.
  • My First Vote (2009) Testimonials of individuals who regained their voting rights after being disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions.
  • De Facto Disenfranchisement, Erika Wood & Rachel Bloom (2008) A report on how complex laws, poorly informed officials, and misinformation lead to the de facto disenfranchisement of citizens with past criminal convictions who are eligible to vote.
  • Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History, Erin Kelley (2017) A piece examining the historical roots of criminal disenfranchisement laws that today strip voting rights from millions of U.S. citizens.

For more information about the Brennan Center’s work on Restoring Voting Rights in Florida, please contact Stuart Baum, at stuart.baum@nyu.edu.