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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Florida

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

Last Updated: February 14, 2023
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.

In June 2019, 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, Gruver v. Barton (consolidated with Jones v. DeSantis), 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, ACLU of Flor­ida, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and ACLU 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.

On January 13, following the arrests of dozens of returning citizens for what appear to be honest mistakes about their eligibility to vote, the Brennan Center, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, Florida NAACP, and League of Women Voters of Florida sent a letter to Secretary of State Cord Byrd putting him on notice that Florida’s voter registration form violates the National Voter Registration Act because it fails to adequately inform applicants with felony convictions of the eligibility requirements.

On February 3, Florida lawmakers introduced H.B. 3-B/S.B. 4-B, a bill to expand the jurisdiction of the office of statewide prosecution (“OSP”) to investigate and prosecute certain crimes related to voting, petition activities, and voter registration. The bill was introduced after several Florida courts dismissed the OSP’s charges against three of the 20 returning citizens arrested by DeSantis’s election police force last August. The courts concluded that the OSP does not have authority to prosecute alleged voting misconduct that occurred in only one judicial circuit. The Brennan Center, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ACLU of Florida, ACLU, Florida NAACP, League of Women Voters of Florida, LatinoJustice, All Voting is Local Florida, and Common Cause Florida submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill. Gov. DeSantis signed S.B. 4-B into law on February 15.

On April 26, the Brennan Center and co-counsel filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Florida and Florida NAACP, challenging Florida’s uniform statewide voter registration application under the National Voter Registration Act. More information about this lawsuit, League of Women Voters of Florida v. Byrd, 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. (FRRC has since been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.)

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.