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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Florida

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

Last Updated: August 10, 2022
Published: May 31, 2019

Disenfranchisement in Florida

In November 2018, nearly 65 percent of Flor­ida voters approved Amend­ment 4, a constitutional amendment that auto­mat­ic­ally restored voting rights to most Floridians with past convictions who had completed the terms of their sentence. Shortly thereafter, in June 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066 into law, prohib­it­ing return­ing citizens from voting unless they pay off certain legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions (LFOs) imposed by a court pursu­ant to a felony convic­tion.

The Bren­nan Center and other civil and voting rights groups filed a lawsuit chal­len­ging the law. The trial court found Florida’s “pay-to-vote system” unconstitutional, in part because it is often not possible to determine whether a returning citizen is eligible to vote because the State does not reliably or consistently track data on LFOs. However, the en banc Elev­enth reversed and vacated the lower court’s ruling. More inform­a­tion about this lawsuit can be found here.

On August 8, 2022, follow­ing reports of a state attor­ney in Alachua County prosec­ut­ing 10 return­ing citizens for allegedly regis­ter­ing and voting in 2020 while ineligible because of outstand­ing LFOs, the Bren­nan Center, the ACLU of Flor­ida, the ACLU, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund created a resource for lawyers and advocacy groups to help return­ing citizens determ­ine if they are eligible to vote. Please note this resource is not intended for the general public and should not be relied upon as legal advice. It should be used in consultation with a lawyer or another expert who is able to interpret Florida’s voting rules, and it is intended to serve as a starting point for assisting a returning citizen with determining whether they are eligible to register and vote.

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 Derek Paulhus, at paulhusd@brennan.law.nyu.edu.