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